Coaching Matters by Michéle Roy

Today, I would like to explore how leaders experience possibility, and use it to guide their teams. Leaders spend much of their thinking time in the realm of possibility, thinking about and asking themselves what is possible? “If we achieve this, what will be possible?” Creating possibility, asks leaders to travel through uncertainty, to get to possibility. Leaders coach and facilitate their team to think beyond the current reality and anticipate the future, in order to sustain and grow their business. For some, the risk of uncertainty is too great and the potential that lies in possibility is missed, or at least not encouraged. The uncertainty is often represented by doubt in people’s capabilities, available resources and a leader’s own capacity to sustain the resiliency, while they travel the road of uncertainty to possibility. They often ask themselves “I can’t do that, what will my team think?” “What if I’m wrong?” “How will it impact me and the people I care about?” These are all valid questions and are naturally asked as we pass through uncertainty. However, these questions point to self–doubt, internal resistance and fear. The responses to these questions are important, however if we dwell too long in analysis, the potential of possibility is lost and the opportunity quickly shrinks, followed by a fixed mindset of control.

Our brains like, and seek out predictability, and to create a better future requires us to overcome the mind’s tendency to live in certainty, and to become uncomfortable, moving beyond the known into the unknown. This is why leaders who can create compelling and collective reasons to step into the future, inspire others to take the risk into possibility.

Coaching leaders through uncertainty and supporting them in realizing the possibility they see for themselves and their teams, is inspiring. We can’t deny the feeling of risk is lively when moving towards possibility. I have never had a leader say to me “I shouldn’t have started down this path”, or “I wished I hadn’t taken that step”. Inevitably they say, “I wish I had done this earlier”, or “I would never have thought this was possible”.

Yes, it feels vulnerable when we take a risk, we feel exposed to other’s judgement’s and to our own. Remembering that we can’t do it alone is critical to our success. There were many times in my own life when I was challenged to live into possibility, vulnerability and not resist the dynamism of life – when I traveled across the country to a new career, when our daughter left the house at 14, and saying goodbye to my mother a few days before the end of her life of 97 years.

I believe vulnerability is a key leadership skill, and when you add discipline to vulnerability, you get resiliency. Vulnerability touches into our humanity, and when revealed, reminds us all of who we are, what we have lived, and confirms our capacity to live with uncertainty. When our daughter left us at that early age, we imagined the worst, and instead of keeping the worst in our minds, we kept in constant contact with her. We took on a disciplined approach in reaching out to her. Not the kind of discipline that forces obedience to a rule or standard. The less common meaning of discipline, which is the spiritual meaning of discipline, where your actions become a conscious practice in expressing your values. Living from spiritual discipline and sharing our vulnerability with others, reminds us we are in community and builds our awareness of our true capacity to act even when uncertain. The spiritual discipline to take action, and the vulnerability to live a life with great meaning, enables and inspires us to lead others into possibility.

Some coaching questions to ask yourself and your team:

  • Given what has happened, what is possible now?
  • What can we do together, that we can’t do alone?
  • What will things look like, after we have been successful?

Coach Roy

It is important to continue to improve yourself every day and the best way to do that is to take note of all the natural qualities that make up who you are today and which qualities you aspire to have that would make you a better person and an even better leader.

The great leaders of our time have the ability to make important things happen. Yet they have also shown remarkable human qualities as well. Abraham Lincoln is one example that comes to mind. Nelson Mandela is another. You may also have many of these social qualities that are now regarded as necessary attributes of character as well as competence for today’s leaders of organizations, countries and communities.

The authors of the groundbreaking 2015 book Mastering Leadership, Bob Anderson and Bill Adams say that to be a better leader is to be a better person. I totally agree with this. Most people have wonderful human qualities that are now widely regarded as leadership virtues. Such as the ability to genuinely connect with and establish caring relationships with both individuals and groups of people. The innate social bonding it takes to work together for a common purpose and a common good.

Traditional leadership skills for managerial roles still hold true, such as business acumen, strategic thinking, communication skills, decisiveness and accountability. But the outdated concept of ‘Soft Skills’ is now surpassed by the undeniable and statistically validated fact that relationship skills and task focus need to be well balanced. Being self-aware, establishing caring connections, being collaborative and team-oriented are the human and leadership assets we all need today.

Here are some of these positive characteristics that are seeds of quality leaders. Which of them do you already have?

Natural Leadership Quality

  • I can show initiative 
  • I can listen carefully to others 
  • I can speak with care, considering how others hear me 
  • I ask for feedback on how I’m doing 
  • I am good at asking questions 
  • I am open to having difficult, important or emotional conversations 
  • I can see the strengths in others 
  • I don’t expect you or anyone else to be perfect 
  • I am tolerant and patient with myself and with others 
  • I give other people lots of thank you’s or praise 
  • I am open to hearing ideas that are different to mine 
  • I can inspire or excite others with my ideas 
  • I have empathy and compassion for others 
  • I can speak up clearly about what I think or feel 
  • I can take the first step 
  • I can connect well with others 
  • I have optimism 
  • I have a positive attitude 
  • I am action oriented 
  • I feel a sense of purpose in my life and think about the difference I want to make in the world 
  • I have trusting relationships outside my family 
  • I have clear boundaries in my personal relationships 
  • I am a team player and am good at working with others 
  • I am good at getting stuff done 
  • I am aware of and can manage my emotions 
  • I am aware of my personality style compared to others 
  • I can adapt my style to others when needed 
  • I am always keen to learn and develop myself 
  • I walk my own talk 
  • I consider consequences before acting 
  • I keep my promises 
  • I can think big picture as well as the weeds 
  • I can be decisive even if I don’t’ have enough, or confusing information 
  • I do a good job of my work-life balance 
  • I am OK with changing things up 
  • I show caring and compassion for others 
  • I show concern for my neighborhood or community 
  • I show concern for what’s happening in the world

There are many other positive attributes that most people have that are potential leadership qualities. Whether you have a manager title or not, these qualities are very much about people skills. They are also about moving things forward in a positive way. There are no MBA’s for this. No diploma’s either. All you have to do is look inwards to your own character, your own style, your own behavior to see the leadership in you and to see how each and every one of us can continually learn and make a positive difference in the world simply by being more human.

Contact LeaderSharp today for expert leadership and team development training. The world needs better leaders, why not become one?

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I’m critical. And I’m judgmental. Of people and of things. At times my head floods with negative thoughts. I am also critical of my critical tendencies, which spirals into a very distasteful experience of myself. I could explain it away of course. Not my fault. I’m an introvert. I’m reserved, analytical, detail-oriented and good at finding flaws. There are strengths here. But I can show up as quiet, withdrawn, unsmiling. My thoughtful face appears serious to others and can feel unfriendly.

My rapidly growing self-awareness of all this hurts. It drains my physical and emotional energy and causes anguish that limits me, holds me back and darkens my spirit. The lens through which I see the world and other people and events has been clouded over my entire life by so many limiting beliefs. They work quietly, insidiously on autopilot in my subconscious, like a thousand small, leaden weights on invisible chains of thought. This is my shadow side. We all have one.

Yet there is also light and much brightness when I remember that I have so many choices in how to be in this world – I am not stuck. I have realized that I have lead with my head for much of my career. I’m good at thinking. Now I’m working on leading with my heart first. Uncovering my feeling abilities. Whenever I notice a judgmental thought I tell myself to fill my heart with love and compassion. It takes a lot of practice. And it’s working.

I found a quote by Mandy Hale that really struck me. So it’s posted in front of my desk. I look at it often. I also speak it to myself often. It says, “The key to happiness is letting each situation be what it is, instead of what you think it should be.” I find it so powerful and helpful in changing my mindset in the moment when criticism flares. I also created a slightly different version for myself. It says, “The key to happiness is letting each person be who they are instead of who you think they should be.” This shifts my thinking to feeling how the other person is experiencing me. My love and compassion for people is awakened. It wasn’t absent. Just sleeping. Another habit I’m forming is to offer acts of kindness at every opportunity. Especially to strangers. This feels like leading with love to me. And it makes both of us feel happier.

Every day love seems to diminish as our world becomes more volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Leaders react defensively to protect their personal, organization or nation’s interests. But our human minds, our leadership mindsets find it difficult or impossible to cope with this changing, challenging and scared new world. We retrench, get protective to create safety and peer out from our personal bunker. But it won’t work. As people and as leaders we need to evolve to a higher level of capability to deal with our circumstances. We have to develop a higher level of character, competence and mindset in order to keep up with the current reality and the pace of change.

The Key to Happiness

A vital part of my own development is my Leadership Circle Profile™ It has revealed my critical and distant behaviors like a dirty mirror. But the guiding light for my development path is also revealed and I can finally uncover my constraining beliefs and, with the help of my coach, change them. Forever. My inadequate world view is changing as I realize that I can identify my beliefs, and manage or eliminate them. They no longer control me. I can change longstanding habits of thought. I can change my mindset.

We can all do this. Every one of us. We can move up from a reactive mindset to a more creative, compassionate view and experience our selfish, protective words, and actions fall away. As we lead with love for ourselves and all others we begin to fully embrace the leadership and human qualities that everyone craves, such as authenticity, self-awareness, composure, humility, collaboration, caring relationships, asking questions and listening deeply, teamwork, developing others and purpose – and leading with heart. With love for ourselves and for others.

John Lennon always had it right. All you need is love.

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This morning I watched a Ted Talk entitled “Falling in Love is the Easy Part” by Mandy Len Catron (Catron’s Ted Talk).  She is known for writing an article in the New York Times a few years ago called “To Fall in Love with Anyone, Do This” Catron’s Article.  The article tells her story about her real life experience of trying a psychological experiment designed by Dr. Arthur Aron.  The experiment hypothesizes that if two people take 90 minutes to ask each other 36 pre-designed questions, and then spend four minutes gazing into each other’s eyes, they are statistically more likely to fall in love. The questions were designed to increase in their personal nature as they couple works their way down the list.  The list starts with questions like “ What would constitute a perfect day for you?” and  “For what in your life are you most grateful?” leading to deeper questions like “When did you last cry in front of another person? And so on.  Mandy Len Catron tried the experiment with an acquaintance and they indeed did fall in love (no spoiler on whether they are still together! I know you are wondering… watch the Ted Talk). 

As coaches we are often asked “what makes a great question?” .  My answer is that the question is only part of it. This experiment shows the powerful combination of intentionally setting aside time to BE with one another;  asking questions with the intent to listen; being fully present;  reflecting and provide honest, authentic answers; and holding a safe space for the other person when they are reflecting and responding. It then caps it off with an extended period of intensely connecting eye contact.  Who among us wouldn’t be emotionally moved by this!

So here’s my Valentine’s Day Challenge to all of us.  Commit to spending 90 minutes with someone you care about, set the intention of connecting with them, and then try your own asking and listening experiment. You can use your own questions, or borrow from the list Mandy Len Catron used from Aron’s experiment, “The 36 Questions that Lead to Love “. 

 Happy Valentine’s Day!

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Did you get everything done yesterday that you wanted to? How about the day before that? Would you like more time in your day to do everything? Work, texting the kids, family, friends, groceries, Facebook, errands, fixing the lawnmower. It’s a frenetic world we stumble through every day with no time to take a breath. The ‘To Do’ list is never complete (It never will be by the way so get used to it). I don’t know about you, but this causes me anxiety. My desk is a mess, and my friends rarely see me. Evenings I’m some kind of Zombie ‘cos I’m so tired.

To create more balance we can try to manage our energy (not our time). By focusing more on what we eat, how much sleep we get, how much exercise we take (cardio, strength training and flexibility) we can become more productive, energized and focused. Loads of research supports this somewhat counter-intuitive concept. There is also an increasing focus on becoming more mindful, including paying more attention to our presence in the moment. So what’s all this got to do with listening?

Well, one critical leadership competence and respectful human kindness trait is to really listen to another person during a conversation. But as we flail though our frantic world many things can suffer from our lack of attention. Listening is a big one. The victims are our friends, family, spouses, children, neighbor’s bosses and co-workers. My guess is you know how you feel when someone is not fully listening to you. Often they will listen for a few seconds, then chime in with their experience that takes over what you were trying to say. They (often unknowingly) create a shift in the conversation to them, away from you.

This type of listening is listening for a gap so they can speak. Half listening and simply waiting to say what’s on their mind irrespective of what you are saying. Sadly, this happens all the time. In contrast, can you recall a time when you were listened to attentively and deeply. When the other person asked a question, curious to learn more about what you just told them. Connecting with your words and their meaning and how the event made you feel. This is known as active listening. I like to call it resonant listening. This is giving them your complete attention and listening so fully with your head, your heart, and your gut that other person feels you are with them in their story, and feels that you want to know more. You know it is about them in that moment and far less about you. Many top leaders and wonderful people are great at listening.

Recently FastCompany published a great Blog by Lisa Evans describing the Six Habits of Good Listeners. It was based on research work by Taylor Berens Crouch at the University of Maryland. The short article is well worth a read. Here are six habits of great listeners:

1. Practice being mindful
2. Pause before responding
3. Paraphrase what was just said
4. Have an open mind
5. Are comfortable with being uncomfortable
6. Aware of their body language

How do your resonant listening abilities measure up most of the time? Where are you placing your attention when others speak?

With some of my executive coaching clients I give them a simple tool to use if they are shifting their habits from an expert in ‘knowing and telling’ mode to more of an ‘asking and listening’ mode. This is a coach approach to leadership. The tool I share with them, which can be written in a notebook as a reminder, is W.A.I.T, which stands for ‘Why Am I Talking?’ It’s a reminder to listen more than talk, and it works really well.

It’s not just a key leadership skill to be good at resonant listening, it’s a human relationship skill. You may find that you enjoy deeper friendships, better relationships and greater success as a manager if you simply WAIT.

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Every day news stories, images and videos squawk like vultures over politics, catastrophes and hardship. Global leaders struggle with terrorism, poverty and hunger, infectious diseases, cyber-crime and the confusing global economy. Within organizations, managers and leaders face an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) business environment. The world also reels from disruption, the crash of oil and gas prices, economic downturns and demographic changes in the workforce with the inevitable retirement of Baby Boomers. It’s no wonder that leaders are struggling to keep pace. In our April 2016 article “Why We Have a Global Leadership Crisis and What We Can Do About It,” we described the three startling trends underpinning a global leadership crisis.

Albert Einstein once said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” Margaret Wheatley, author of such remarkable books as Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World, says, “Most of the ways we were taught to think, to reason, to understand simply don’t give us the means to make wise decisions any more. We don’t know how to be wise stewards of the dilemmas and challenges that confront us daily. We were not taught how to make sense of a chaotic world, or a worldwide interconnected web of activity and relationships.”

Many leaders may not see the link between self-awareness, continuous development and the effectiveness of their leadership. Others who realize that their current capabilities are not enough either don’t have the time or don’t know where to seek help. Those who do look for help tend to take training, read books or take advice from others on how they can change what they are doing simply to cope with current reality. For decades, leadership development has focused on improving sets of competencies and skills, such as financial acumen, strategic thinking or project management, to improve the way leaders and managers are functioning, fixing, planning, organizing and accomplishing. This focus on the amount or quality of what leaders are doing is mostly looking externally at the results they produce. However, there is an altogether different direction to look for the leadership we need for today and tomorrow.

The direction we need to look is inward. Leadership for a chaotic world, whether in politics or organizations, begins with who we are being. Who we are being creates what we are doing and in particular, how we are doing it. Developing better leaders is about the inner journey of self-awareness, self-understanding and the realization of how others experience us. It’s about evolving our presence and how we hold conversations with others. It’s about understanding our beliefs and assumptions, our biases and habits. It’s about changing our reactivity to people and situations by understanding and managing our emotional intelligence.

Office Setup

The leadership that the world and its organizations now need is about humanity. We need self-understanding and a commitment to personal growth. We need more listening and less telling, shared leadership and co-creation—not dictatorship. We need authentic people who understand and balance the difference between achieving results and creating strong relationships. Our leaders have to find a new way of being so they can evolve what and how they are doing. For themselves, their families, their teams, their organizations, their communities, their industries, their countries and the world.

But if leaders turn inward for self-development, who are their guides and coaches? How do we find our beacon of light in the dense forest of leadership development tools? Well, there is profoundly good news. There are some remarkable leadership guides and coaches who have dedicated most of their lives to this very important cause.

One bright light in the leadership development world is Judith Glaser. In 2013, she published Conversational Intelligence: How Great Leaders Build Trust & Get Extraordinary Results. Her premise, which we fully agree with, is that much of effective leadership boils down to holding effective conversations with other people and gaining their trust. This is far more challenging than we think, and it’s easy to trigger another person into an emotional reaction such as defensiveness or silence when we ignore how human brains work. Her lifetime of neuroscience research and understanding of our brain’s natural survival instincts have culminated in her Conversational Intelligence tools for leaders and for coaches of leaders. This guidance is also about a new level of self-awareness in how we interact with others. As Glaser says, “To get to the next level of greatness depends on the quality of the culture, which depends on the quality of the relationships, which depends on the quality of the conversations.”

Two other significant shining stars are Bob Anderson and Bill Adams of The Full Circle Group. Their Universal Model of Leadership is the most comprehensive, elegant and profound framework for leadership ever created. It incorporates and unifies most other leadership models and approaches, including systems thinking, emotional intelligence and authenticity. Their new book, Mastering Leadership, describes and statistically proves what competencies define effective leadership and how effective leaders create better business results. They describe a new level of consciousness (which they compare to upgrading our personal operating system) that is required in today’s VUCA world and show us how to evolve who we are being as leaders.

If your head is spinning from the volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, disruption, downturn and demographic shifts in the workforce, how do you re-learn how to succeed as a leader? Well, one starting point is to read Mastering Leadership and take the self-assessment on your leadership effectiveness. Within the whirlwind, this will give you a critical handhold. It’s a starting point for survival, for success—even for greatness.

This article first appeared in JWN Energy’s online publication May 13, 2016.

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It’s all too familiar these days: the heartbreaking images of empty cubicles, vacant offices, deserted downtown parades, and recurring headlines spewing news of cost reduction and more layoffs. The cuts are deep, and the pain is real for everyone involved. Yet the people who are often forgotten in these challenging times are the “layoff survivors,” those who have been spared the axe this time around and hopefully for good. These are the people left to pick up the pieces and keep the company running while dealing with their own complex mix of emotions.

Layoff survivors report feeling sadness at the loss of coworkers while penitently feeling relieved that it wasn’t them. It’s a confusing mix of relief and grief. Workloads have increased, priorities can be ambiguous and there are inescapable reminders of those who are gone all around them. The relationship with management often suffers, leaving survivors distrustful, resentful and disengaged. They can feel disconnected and demotivated and carry high levels of anxiety and stress. Some think about tapping out and starting fresh somewhere else, but feel trapped by the economic uncertainty. This spectrum of emotions is common among those left holding the torch, and it has been labelled layoff survivor syndrome.


Gravity, hope and what’s under your cloak

As a layoff survivor, you may be experiencing one of the most traumatic events of your life. Perhaps you were instructed to wait in your office, “marinating in anxiety” while the layoffs happened (“Last Person Standing: What it’s like when the axe falls in your office”). You might have watched as colleagues and friends were escorted out of the building, or you may have witnessed worse.

Do not underestimate the gravity of your experiences and your emotional reactions. Try to notice how you are dealing with grief and transition during change. Watch for signs of depression or anxiety, and access counselling even if you are not completely convinced you need it. Audit your nutrition, exercise and sleep habits, and get help to improve them. Self-care is the foundation of your recovery from this experience and requires attention if you are going to bounce back.

But what if your self-care is in check and you’re still upset and stuck? Good news: there is hope! Cloaked in this arduous time of your life is a crucial opportunity for self-discovery. You can transform your own experience. How? By noticing and choosing your mindset.


Are you wearing concrete shoes?

In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Carol Dweck writes about the power of our beliefs, whether we are aware of them or not, and their profound effects on how we navigate our lives. She contrasts the “fixed mindset,” where we believe that our talents, abilities and intelligence are fixed traits, and the “growth mindset” where we believe we can develop these things through effort and persistence.

Dweck asserts that a fixed mindset is focused on judgement, and when faced with challenges it generates internal messages such as What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t have what it takes? If I fail, I will be a failure. People operating in a fixed mindset opt out of trying in order to avoid being judged. They stay stuck in “concrete shoes.” In a growth mindset, internal messages sound like I am not sure how to do it now, but I can learn with a little effort. Failure is normal; most successful people have failed along the way. If I fail, I will learn from it and try again. A growth mindset sees a challenge as a starting point for change.

How do you know if you are operating from a fixed or growth mindset? Dweck says we can operate from both. She writes “mindsets are an important part of your personality, but you can change them. Just by knowing about the two mindsets you can start thinking and reacting in new ways.”

So where do your thoughts spend their time? You may be operating from a fixed mindset if any of these describe your thoughts or behaviours:

  • I feel defensive when I receive critical feedback.
  • I engage in conversations that demean others.
  • I blame others even when I have made mistakes. 
  • If I try something and fail, it means I am a failure.
  • It’s important to me to appear intelligent to others. I avoid challenges that could threaten this appearance.
  • I believe achievement should be effortless. If I try and fail, it’s worse than not trying at all.
  • I seek affirmation of my talents and abilities.
  • I feel threatened by the success of others.
  • I use excuses for not achieving that are outside my control.
  • I don’t need to change—the world around me does.
  • I am a victim and none of this is my doing.

Layoff survivors with a fixed mindset may feel powerless, uneasy, vulnerable and incapable of adjusting to their new reality. They may not have the agility to meet the requirements of the new environment, and they may be paralyzed by the fear of trying and failing. Dweck writes, “When people believe in fixed traits, they are always in danger of being measured by a failure. It can define them in a permanent way. Smart or talented as they may be, this mindset seems to rob them of their coping resources.” In essence, their mindset makes it impossible to adapt, making them ineffective in the new context and even more vulnerable to future layoffs.



What can be learned from the grass under your feet?

What can you do if you are operating from a fixed mindset, and you know it’s limiting you? We aren’t suggesting you need to change who you are, just to flex a little. Notice your mindset and ask yourself:

  • How do my thoughts and beliefs impact the way I feel?
  • How might others perceive me?
  • How does this contribute to the outcome?

These questions will move you into a growth mindset where you ultimately ask yourself what you can learn from the experience. This is you stepping out of your concrete shoes, getting curious about the feel of the grass beneath your feet, and starting to adapt and adjust to your new context with an open mind.

People with a growth mindset believe that they will learn from challenges, failures and mistakes. They see setbacks as a wakeup call and face them with perseverance and determination. They show resilience and step up with openness, creativity and curiosity. The growth mindset is characterized by believing that “effort ignites ability, which leads to accomplishment,” writes Dweck. If you want something badly, you will do something about it. You will put the effort in to achieve it.


Here are our top 10 tips to get started growing your growth mindset:

  1. Honestly assess how you are showing up at work. Ask for feedback from your peers and your supervisor. They will see things differently than you do, and there is great value in this.
  2. Admit to the role you are playing, and change it if it needs to be changed. Say no to gossip. Don’t look for people to blame. Refuse to engage in conversations that demean others. 
  3. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” Ask questions. Be curious. Get involved. Don’t hide. Raise your concerns in a candid and respectful way.
  4. Be less defensive. When you receive feedback, listen for their intent (which is to help, because you asked for it!). Listen to learn, not to prove your theories—and don’t make excuses.
  5. You are still there, so be there. If you are struggling, initiate the conversations you need to have with the right people. Be self-directed. Ask for help; clarify your intent; be open to their support.
  6. Create learning experiences. Find a mentor; step up to leadership opportunities; stretch yourself. 
  7. Let go of negativity. It’s keeping you stuck. It raises stress hormones (cortisol) in your brain and prevents you from being creative and engaged. It is not serving you, so it doesn’t deserve your energy. 
  8. Be a leader. You have survived the layoffs; help your employer survive. Step up and help the business in any way you can. Be positive. Be solution-focused.
  9. Find the new rhythm of work. Create some new healthy routines, or re-establish the ones that worked well for you. 
  10. Forgive and move on.

Mahatma Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world,” Michael Jackson sang, “Start with the man in the mirror,” and Eric Clapton sang, “Before you accuse me, take a look at yourself.” We underestimate the power we have to influence our own experience of the world and the range of choices we have when we are feeling stuck. By understanding our own ways of thinking we can alter the way we feel and how show up for others in the world. This opens up a world of new opportunities and possibilities that we may have been blind to.


How can you change from a fixed to a growth mindset?

This article was first published in Oilweek Online March 31, 2016.

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With shocking speed last year we fell into this major downturn in the oil patch in western Canada and economically worldwide. There’s no bounce back in sight and most companies are assuming this one is “lower for longer”. Capital projects have been cancelled and jobs and budgets have been drastically cut. The Petroleum Human Resources Council just reported that 53 per cent of oil industry organizations surveyed are decreasing their workforce. Announcements of hundreds more lost jobs at energy companies were in the news earlier this year and are appearing again. This means many companies have to work harder to sustain business results and achieve more with fewer people. Maybe it feels like we’ve been here before, but this time the challenges are more difficult than ever.

Executives, managers and employees race through their days reactively, struggle with information overload, spend hours in ineffective meetings, drown in emails and shoulder the burden of ever-increasing demands.

Why? Both life and work are moving at a faster pace and dealing with higher volumes of tasks that leave most people whirling through a maelstrom of busyness. Being overwhelmed has become a nasty, unavoidable habit. Executives, managers and employees race through their days reactively, struggle with information overload, spend hours in ineffective meetings, drown in emails and shoulder the burden of ever-increasing demands. In this stressful state, we lose our balance, our energy is sapped and we slip into survival mode, where fight, flight or freeze seem like our only options. When we are in this mode, we can kiss productivity goodbye.

The figure below shows how the Yerkes-Dodson stress law affects human performance.

Performance Curve


They say, “When you’re talking about either physical or mental performance, we all need some stress to motivate us to perform well. But too much stress will hamper our ability to perform.” So this means as stress increases, performance levels also increase for a while because this is good stress, just like good cholesterol. But if stress levels are too high, this causes our performance and ability to cope to deteriorate and can block our arteries like bad cholesterol does. Everyone has a different optimum stress level and once we surpass it, performance and well being declines. “The resulting frustration, fear of failure and fear of the consequences of poor performance can lead to all sorts of psychological issues from irritability and absenteeism, to problems at home, breakdowns and substance abuse. In a business, it can also lead to high turnover rates, which is one of the biggest problems facing independent advisory firms today.”

Many of us respond to increasing workloads and higher demands by putting in longer hours. But this takes its toll mentally, physically and emotionally. Yet we see no other way of getting everything done. Aware of our tiredness, irritability and the stress that people feel, managers and employees alike may be far less in tune with their decline in engagement and motivation, the increasing tendency to become distracted and the inexorable deterioration in work quality and quantity, which is the opposite of our intentions.

Everyone has a different optimum stress level and once we surpass it, performance and well-being declines.

How can we all break out of this unsustainable way of working and create a much healthier state of higher energy, enthusiasm, engagement, motivation and productivity without burning the midnight oil and forgetting the names of our kids?

The first step is to notice where you are on the stress curve. The context to use is your whole life, not just your job. Get real with yourself and pay attention to your overall state. An objective look at your current mindset and how you’re coping is a great start. If your stress is overwhelming you, just by paying attention and noticing what’s really going on for you is actually the first step in changing it for the better.

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In a recent survey of 350,000 people worldwide by Franklin Covey, people admitted to spending up to 40 per cent of their time on unimportant or irrelevant tasks. This is a surprising number considering our increasing workload. How have we traditionally tried to resolve this? Time management training has been the go-to for decades; however, there are new schools of thought that state this is the wrong focus. The new approach, proven to be effective at increasing efficiency and productivity, is to manage your energy not your time. Executives and managers in particular can benefit from these new disciplines and can help employees embrace the same approach and techniques.

Personal energy management is about physical, mental and emotional self-care. It’s about taking a break, slowing down and looking after yourself in order to rejuvenate, fill up your tank and build inner strength so you can meet your goals with clarity, creativity and capacity. It’s counter-intuitive and it works. But we ask ourselves, “How can I spend time taking care of myself when I have so much to do?”

It’s about taking a break, slowing down and looking after yourself in order to rejuvenate, fill up your tank and build inner strength so you can meet your goals with clarity, creativity and capacity. 

Our natural tendency is to work harder to get through our endless to-do lists when this is exactly the time when we need to focus on self-care. If you are going to be extreme in how you work, you need to balance this with extreme discipline around your self-care.

Physical Self Care:  How can we expect our bodies to sustain high performance in return for poor nutrition, not enough rest, and sedentary activity for hours on end?

  1. Increase physical activity, even in small ways. We all know what we should be doing to get physically healthier yet many of us don’t follow through because we don’t give it the priority it deserves This is what should be counter-intuitive to us! Countless studies show that regular exercise gives you better concentration, improved memory, quicker learning, increased mental stamina, lower stress and more creativity. It also reduces irritability, elevates mood and fosters better workplace relationships. As a bonus, exercise also allows your mind to focus on other things, which is valuable reflection and subconscious processing time. All these have a positive influence on performance and productivity. Even a walk at lunchtime can make a difference. 
  2. Get enough sleep. If you have already incorporated regular exercise into your routine, make sure you haven’t swung too far by sacrificing rest in order to work out. If you are sacrificing sleep to get to the gym too often, try to reach a balance and give your body the rest it needs.
  3. Fuel your body with quality food.  Food is what fuels our bodies. When we are tired or feeling deprived of the joys of life because we work too much, we can turn to food to comfort us. When this happens, food is no longer a fuel to us, its soothing unmet emotional needs. Feed your body with nutritious foods to give it the fuel it needs. Processed foods, fast foods, sugar, caffeine and alcohol are all culprits.

Mental and Emotional Self-Care:

Our natural tendency is to work harder to get through our endless to-do lists when this is exactly the time when we need to focus on self-care.

  1. Back away from your desk, it can improve your mindset and mental well-being. Our brains have a limited capacity in working memory. Studies show that we can only focus our attention for about 20 minutes at a time. Try chunking out your day and taking small breaks of one or two minutes every 20 minutes to relieve your brain and allow it to rest between periods of intense focus.

Mental and Emotional Self-Care

  1. Avoid the temptation to multi-task. A quick win is to stop checking your email every few minutes and change your daily habit to checking email in chunks two or three times a day during lower energy times. Remove other distractions and interruptions to improve your focus. Your brain will thank you. One research study showed that it can take up to 20 minutes to get back on task after getting distracted. Another showed that interruptions can increase the time it takes to complete the original task by as much as 25 per cent.
  2. Know your Peak Energy Times.  Be aware of the times when you have highest energy and plan to tackle tasks that require your most focused concentration during those times. For many people this is in the morning, but it may be different for you. Notice the times you are most capable of focusing your attention, when you feel most energized and when you are most motivated. These are all hints that you are in your peak energy time. Also notice when your mental energy is least focused. These may be good times to get some physical exercise, such as yoga, or to meditate.
  3. Don’t shy away from practices like yoga and meditation. Both yoga and meditation are accessible, effective and scientifically proven practices that impact our physical, mental and emotional well-being. It’s about becoming more mindful and centered and is an important component of executive presence. We spend far too much time focusing on the past, which we cannot change, and the future, which is where our fear of the unknown lives. Anchoring ourselves in the present through breathing (both meditation and yoga are based on this simple process) allows us to regenerate and take a break from all that drains our energy. They are easy to incorporate. Start by taking time to pause and reflect at least twice a day for 15 minutes, concentrating on your breathing. Closing your eyes and focusing on just breathing and being present in the moment will create a more mindful, regenerative state.
  4. Acknowledge your achievements. One of the most effective lifts to your emotional state and motivation comes from making progress in meaningful work. Positive psychology has taught us that reflecting on what you’ve achieved will combat stress, energize you and keep you focused on your most important work. Try writing a “Well Done!” list of your accomplishments on a regular basis, even daily! It’s a “Done It!” list rather than a “To Do” list. One study showed that employees who did this had a performance level 23 per cent higher than colleagues that didn’t.

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If you’re one of the many people who have been laid off recently, this is for you. Recovering from the varied and complex ramifications of a job loss can be overwhelming. To make things worse, your own automatic patterns of thought and behavior may be sabotaging your best efforts. Understanding your underlying thinking offers a great learning opportunity in the aftermath of this critical life event. Learning how to replace these patterns with intentional thought, increased choice and sound purpose will not only bolster your career comeback, it will strengthen your capacity to manage future pivotal events.

Self-sabotage One: The Unconscious Undermine
If you have heard the phrase “fight or flight” or the concept of a threat response, you’ve ventured into the field of neuroscience where we learn from thought leaders, such as David Rock, that the purpose of our brain is to protect us. Minimizing danger and maximizing reward is an organizing principle of the brain. Our brain, therefore, drives our behaviour in ways that minimize perceived threats and maximize rewards. According to Rock’s research, our brain has the same reaction to our unmet social needs as it does to unmet primary needs, such as food and water.

Dirty Rope

So how does this relate to our response to job loss? Our brain assesses every human experience against five social domains: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness (SCARF). Consider status, which is related to our sense of self-worth. Our brains scan to see where we fit in the hierarchy at work and in our social realm, and when we lose a job, the brain reacts to this as a significant threat. Certainty creates a sense of safety that the present is manageable and the future is a known quantity. Change threatens certainty, leading to increased stress and a sense of imbalance. Autonomy gives people a sense of control over what they do, which is often the opposite when a job is suddenly lost. Relatedness refers to our need for social connection or belonging to a group, which could be the peer group that disappears when you leave your employment. Lastly, fairness is always in question when there is sudden job loss, which automatically puts us on the defense.

What can we do about our well-meaning but not-so-helpful survival instincts? Make the unconscious conscious. Reflect on the five social domains in the context of your situation and notice where your survival instincts may be driving you into a defensive fight or flight response. Notice rigid opinions—“It isn’t fair I was let go” (fairness), “I can’t handle this right now” (certainty), “I’m a victim” (autonomy). Also notice physical sensations such as heightened anxiety, faster heart rate, increased perspiration, difficulty sleeping or a sense of panic. These are all indicators that adrenaline is in your bloodstream and you are in fight or flight mode.

Asking yourself a question can help your body move out of the “survival brain” and reengage the cerebral cortex or “thinking brain.” Shift into thinking rather than reacting automatically with questions like “What is right about this situation?”, “Who can I ask to help?”, or “What should I do first?” Replace your survival instincts with consciously chosen action by asking questions. To help the adrenaline leave your bloodstream, move your body. It is a chemical that takes time to dissipate; physical movement helps the process.

Self-sabotage Two: Tangled in Transition
Losing your job can be a highly emotional, disorienting life event that leaves you reeling. You may be experiencing a new and intense mix of emotions such as fear, shame, sadness, anxiety, guilt and hopelessness. As your world tilts, you may find yourself grasping to get your bearings, and staying stuck here can painfully prolong the process.

Strong emotions in this circumstance are a normal and natural response to losing something that was important to you. This is called grief. According to psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Knowing what stage you are in can help you become oriented in your grieving process. These stages also show up in William Bridges’ books on transition for organizations and for individuals, such as Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. Check out his transition model:

Transition During Change

Even though you can frequently move forward and backward as you move through transition, when you can see roughly where you are on the road map, you will feel like you have more control over where you are going and how you will get there.

How do you find solid footing as you simmer in this emotional soup? Create new emotions by changing your thoughts. First, pause to notice and tune in to how you are feeling. Name each emotion and write them down, which can help you acknowledge your full experience (use this feeling wheel to help name your emotions). Once you’ve written them down, think about how they connect to your thoughts, and ultimately to your actions. Notice how your thoughts drive your emotions (not the other way around), which then lead to your actions. Now, ask yourself these three questions:

  1. What behavior am I noticing that is different for me?
  2. What emotions are driving this behavior? 
  3. What thoughts are driving these emotions?

Once you make these connections you will have greater self-awareness and can adjust your thinking by asking, “How else can I think about this? What other perspectives can I explore?” Adjusting your thinking will create new emotions, which will expand your choice of actions. This exercise is not about judging your emotional response, it’s about understanding it. Whatever feelings you are having are valid. “The Five Stages of Grief After Losing a Job” might be a helpful article as you work through your own grief process.

Self-sabotage Three: Nagging Negativity
Job loss is a life event that few of us want to experience, and it can trigger some of our deepest doubts and most negative thoughts. You may be experiencing self-criticism, deflated self-confidence, a sense of lost identity, widespread worry, financial panic or an unshakable focus on problems. You may be obsessing over mistakes or indulging negative self-talk, such as “My career is over,” “I don’t know how to do anything else” or “I will never get another job in this market”.

As the saying goes, we learn in the valleys. It’s normal and healthy to reflect on past experiences. This is often where we find our most meaningful learning. However, if you find that you are repeatedly rehashing without the intention to learn and move forward, you are stuck in a self-sabotaging pattern of negative thought. Left unchecked, these thoughts and feelings can have a detrimental effect on physical and mental health. Assess your own “stinkin’ thinkin’” and notice where you may be absorbed in repetitive, unproductive thoughts that serve no real purpose (while churning up a sea of negative emotions).

Recognizing these negative thoughts as they occur and observing them objectively help loosen your emotional attachment to them and leaves you with more choice in how to react to them. Negative thoughts tend to come from dwelling on the past or worrying about the future, both of which remove you from the present. The present is where life happens; by giving it your undivided attention, you will break the pattern of your negative thoughts.

Take a moment to write down five negative thoughts you have been having. Be curious about your thoughts and answer these questions for each of them:

  1. Where does this thought come from? 
  2. On a scale of 1-10, how accurate is it? 
  3. What evidence do I have that this thought is true? 
  4. And what purpose does this thought serve?

The field of positive psychology, which is essentially the study of happiness, says that “Happiness is not a reward for avoiding pain. It demands that you confront negative feelings head-on without letting them overwhelm you. If you’re going to live a rich and meaningful life, you’re going to feel a full range of emotions.” In essence, bringing mindfulness and positivity to negative feelings reduces their impact on you and your ability to take productive action. Here is a one-minute video on mindfulness at work and an article on how to increase positivity during career transition.

Self-sabotage Four: The Self-care Slump
Many of us are experts at treating ourselves in a much harsher way than we would ever treat others. Job loss can magnify this tendency and may set us on a path that zaps energy and motivation, damages self-esteem and may even lead to substance abuse, depression or, at its most extreme, suicidal thoughts (if you are experiencing these thoughts, seek help at a crisis centre as soon as possible).

Self-sabotage Four: The Self-care Slump

In contrast, what we truly need is heightened self-acceptance, patience, openness, self-love and self-care. The concept of self-care may feel counter-intuitive as we learned subtle messages from an early age to be seen and not heard, to put others before ourselves and to not be selfish. As adults it’s difficult to replace these messages with a healthier approach. However, taking care of yourself is exactly what’s needed to dissipate the stress of your recent experiences, and build up the emotional and spiritual reserves you’ll need to lean on as you move through this transition. Reflect on what types of activities fill your tank, and start practicing them with intention and conviction. This list will vary for each individual, and in case you are wondering, self-care is just as important for guys! Start to take care of yourself in meaningful ways, and you may be surprised at how your perspective evolves.

Shift to a more positive mindset by taking stock of your strengths. Invite people to give you feedback and ask them specifically to help you see your positive attributes. These conversations are not only informative but also empowering, connecting and nurturing at a time when you might really need it. There are also many online tools available to help you recognize and articulate your own strengths such as the StrengthsFinder, a highly researched tool by Gallup.

Lastly, engage your support network, even if you don’t feel like reaching out. Inviting others in will help you lean on the people who want to help the most. Talking with your trusted network about your experiences can provide valuable new perspectives and help them understand how best to support you. People want to help, so let them. It deepens your connections and strengthens your relationships.

Self-sabotage Five: Overwhelmed Inaction
When experiencing job loss, the combination of shock, overpowering emotions and information overload while continuing to function in your physical reality can be overwhelming. You may feel like you have been hit by a rogue wave full of things to do and stuff to worry about. Our brain is highly capable of flashing worrisome thoughts at a rapid-fire pace that is much quicker than real life actually happens. In one minute of worried thinking, you can experience several problems mentally. It’s easy to get caught up in thinking that too much is happening all at the same time, when in the physical world it’s not.

Jumping Dog

If you are feeling paralyzed by overwhelming thoughts, one question to ask yourself that can help you get unstuck is “What is one thing I can do right now that will move me toward my goal?” – then, get up and do it. Take action. It can be that simple. Don’t worry whether it’s the right thing to do or whether it’s a small or significant thing, just get moving. A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. A comprehensive resource called Creating a New Future: The Job-Loss Workbook is worth checking out as you move to action.

Once you are in motion, put the tools in place that will help you organize your thoughts and actions to maintain your new inertia. Set up a system that will help you get things done and keep moving in your chosen direction. Find ways to break larger projects into smaller, more manageable tasks. Enlist support, access the available resources and then follow through. Importantly, don’t forget to celebrate your successes, no matter how small!

Key Takeaways:

  1. Notice whether your fight or flight instinct is kicking in and driving defensive thoughts and behaviors.
  2. Figure out where you are in the stages of transition or in the stages of grief to help you get oriented and plan your next steps. Notice how your thoughts are driving your feelings, which then drive your behaviors.
  3. Break the patterns of negative thinking by asking questions such as “How accurate is this thought?” and “What purpose does it serve?”
  4. Choose your self-care activities and practice them with diligence.
  5. Break big projects down into manageable tasks and take immediate action to break out of feeling overwhelmed.

This article first appeared in Oilweek’s on-line magazine September 15, 2015.