In turbulent times like these, with a global pandemic that creates fear, anxiety, sadness, uncertainty and doubt, it’s reasonable that leaders may be finding it difficult to balance their emotions and remain open to others. I’m struggling with the barrage of information about spiraling death rates, and how to remain safe, that elevates my anxiety. When everything seems to be out of control, and our physical safety is compromised, we can manage our negative emotions by living life in small moments. The coping skills of zeroing in on the many moments in our days that are alright and going well, can change our perspective from overwhelmed to simmering to relaxed.
The Covid-19 virus landed in Washington state in February this year. Two months later, with thousands of positive cases, hundreds of deaths and stay at home requirements, we’ve been riding on an emotional roller coaster and anticipating it might be a while before we can get off.
There are no human beings on this planet that have not been affected by this extremely contagious virus. I have deep empathy for those who’ve lost loved ones and who have been unable to console or say goodbye to them. It’s impossible to understand the shortages of safety equipment, masks, ventilators and tests for first responders putting their lives on the line every day. There are fear and anxiety driven behaviors such as food hording, price gouging, cheating people out of federal relief checks and loads of internet scams that prey on people. We’re all wondering if there will be a new normal on the other side of this.
I’m taking my own advise at this time to focus moment to moment each day while practicing extreme self-care (ESC); sleeping well, exercising, eating healthy foods (with some guilty pleasures like ice cream and chocolate); calming the immune system by meditating, whatever will settle my mind and bring awareness to my reactivity to so many factors beyond my control.
In turbulent times it’s best to live our lives in consumable bites – day by day and moment to moment.
For leaders, practicing self-care feels like the last thing to do in the long list of mounting personal and business pressures. However, ESC with doses of self-compassion, grace and courage are now required more than ever, to help others in need of extra support. It’s a humbling act to observe and understand ourselves in these times of great uncertainty, to allow our emotions in fully, without minimizing, rationalizing, fixing or numbing them.
Leaders must extend their awareness beyond themselves, knowing that heightened negative emotions can spread to others quickly, so managing them well, and having good coping strategies saves everyone from taking a ride on the stress bus. With greater presence and a practice of appreciation, we’re more able to be intentional about our next actions and words, to be as authentic and balanced as possible. Appreciation moment to moment may include thinking about what is good in our lives, taking walks in nature, smelling everything new in the Spring air, being grateful for you own health and that of our family members as well.
By making a choice every day to pay attention to and contribute to the many acts of kindness in our communities, to thank the many selfless health and essential workers and to support local food banks, will take us out of our own revelry to see the bigger picture around us. Living our best lives in times like these comes with a steep learning curve, however, with great uncertainty, we can choose to take it all in one moment at a time.
When time is scarce (when is it not these days) and the to-do list is endless, prioritizing important projects, deciding where to spend your time and maintaining energy are critical skills for the overburdened executive. Everyone today in corporate environments will tell you that time is the scarcest resource while work volume is increasing. With shrinking budgets, an over-abundance of information, twenty-four seven access on multiple devices and increasing business complexity, leaders must use their time wisely.
This is true for all executives, and for those new to C-levels roles especially, where a leader spends his or her time are the most essential skill-sets to build credibility in the first year and beyond. Seasoned executives could benefit from periodic adjustments to their time, energy and resources without apology as well. A key part of this time adjustment is often managing the expectations of others’ about where you will focus your precious time, resources and energy.
Although coaching goals for executives are targeted at outcomes, such as increasing revenues, maintaining or decreasing costs, envisioning new lines of business, leading organizational change or communicating with key stakeholders effectively, our coaching conversations often include managing oneself effectively, monitoring where time is spent and recasting focus areas to use that time well. Understanding where a leader currently spends his or her time might sound onerous, however, a quick calendar scan over a two to four-week time frame will illustrate well enough the big buckets of work and time allocated to them.
The narrative often goes like this, “I can’t believe I spend most of my time on short- term horizon activities, mostly in meetings, presiding over daily operations and initiatives.” CEO’s should be spending the bulk of their time on mid to long horizon strategies that only he or she can do for the company. Another observation that’s common is the frequency of important impromptu conversations that could potentially wait to be addressed in other venues such as staff meetings, scheduled 1:1 update(s) or handled by others (the direct reports of the CEO). It’s not that open-door policies are bad, in fact, they’re great for preserving or building healthy business cultures, however, executives must maintain a focus on the right work to move the business forward and delegate the rest.
As many of the executives I work with are making the transition to C-level jobs for the first time, letting go of the old functional responsibilities is a difficult habit to break. It’s tempting to keep a hand in old functional activities from one’s previous job, instead of fully handing them to other leaders so they can learn. Holding onto perfection expectations can be one reason for holding on to old work or simply that this work is a comfort zone, where one feels competent.
One new C-level executive, Jane, had grown up in the company before becoming CEO. When we reviewed where she was spending her time, as much as 40% of her time was spent in lower value activities that could be handled by her successor. Many leaders wait too long to hand work to other senior leaders, and instead are in some way micro-managing this work that now belongs to others in the organization. The question becomes, how deep should one go into functional work versus adopting a new role as coach to up and coming leaders?
Jane was also spending 25% of her time on a significant organization change project by sitting in long weekly change team meetings and attending satellite office meetings where the operational change work was taking place. After evaluating her time, she moved from doer to sponsor in the change work, keeping an appropriate distance while her very capable senior leaders managed the daily tasks. When she became more of the thinking partner to them, she bought herself significant amounts of time to focus on important external community and legislative outreach.
She made significant changes in her mindset about the value of her contributions across the company and began to control her work, instead of it controlling her. As a result of her new focus on high priority work, Jane found she had more energy to give to her daily responsibilities. She started to feel energized instead of exhausted. For example, she changed how she utilized transition times before and after work and between meetings or conversations.
Jane used to catch up on emails while riding to work on the ferry. Instead of feeling behind on daily communications, she spent her ride time thinking about longer term opportunities for the company. As a result, she would arrive at work feeling more energized and proactive. She made sure that work processes were in place to manage annual planning work streams and delegated this accountability to her head of operations. When leaders would ask her questions about strategic planning deliverable(s) she would refer them to her COO.
Jane created what we called micro-practices during the day that would allow her to assess if she was focused on the right work, such as re-purposing mornings, when she generally felt fresher, for blue sky thinking with her direct reports. She caught up on emails twice a day at specific times that were scheduled on her calendar as uninterrupted desk time. Jane gave herself permission to attend her favorite yoga class every week. She also allowed one late day a week to catch up if needed, otherwise she went home on time to be with her family on a more consistent basis.
One of the biggest improvements was testing her assumptions about meetings that had been on the corporate calendar for years. She asked, “do we still need this meeting or could be re-purpose this time for something else or just getting work done?” Jane asked meeting owners to provide pre-reading materials and agendas in advance of each meeting, so everyone arrived ready to have the conversation they needed to have. This practice was about valuing everyone’s time, not just her own. Some meetings were changed to 50 minutes, instead of one hour, so she had time between conversations to relax, breathe deeply, refocus and prepare for the next conversation. Many of her lunch hour meetings with direct reports were shortened as well, and now included a 30-minute walk when the weather was good. As a result of these small changes she found the transitions between meetings more relaxing and centering, and she gained back another 10-15% of her time on a monthly basis.
It took some time to get there, but eventually, Jane was unapologetic about spending her time on the highest leverage activities for the company. Modeling this approach, gave other senior leaders permission to test assumptions about where they spent their time. Over time, meetings became much more efficient and they had less of them on a weekly basis. Senior leaders took these approaches to their own teams, so the wisdom of valuing how people spent their time was passed along to others. This approach aligned with one of their company values of delivering high-quality work and excellence in company performance. Jane’s focused time, resources and energy approach and her ability to pay herself first, ultimately paid time forward for everyone in the company.
Social awareness skills enable us to manage relationships effectively, and in the workplace, to lead people, projects and teams with greater success. These skills impact the bottom line and hold far greater weight than most leaders realize. Social awareness is defined as the ability to pick up on the emotions of other’s and to understand what is going on for them in any given moment. This in turn, positively or negatively impacts the quality and enduring nature of any (work) relationships. It’s about being able to differentiate what other people are thinking and feeling, even though you may not be feeling the same way or have differing perspectives. As words on paper, it all sounds simple enough, however, it turns out to be harder than it looks.
The good news is these competencies within the emotional intelligence framework, are learnable and leaders can improve them with focus and effort. When leaders demonstrate low social awareness, especially when under pressure, the negative impacts on employee engagement and morale, and company culture can be both far-reaching and detrimental to business success. How leaders respond to situations and people leaves a strong and lasting impression that (when soured) cannot be easily reversed. On the other hand, when social awareness behaviors are strong, leaders can motivate and inspire employees and teams to give discretionary effort that results in positive engagement in the workplace.
Another element in the emotional intelligence framework that supports one’s ability to become more socially aware, are self-awareness as a building block and self-management of emotions. Self- management is the ability to use one’s self-awareness about various emotional responses and address them in the moment, to be able to stay open and flexible with others.
If a leader has an occasional outburst of anger or frustration, or loses his or her composure, temper or patience, relationships can be negatively impacted well after the incident has passed.
Over the last thirty years, I’ve had conversations with many executives who believe they’re supportive, empathetic and curious when interacting with others, and by extension, they believe they’re creating positive cultures or workplace environments. However, getting it right, even ninety-five percent of the time, might not be enough to garner effective work relationships if five percent of the time the same leader loses control of his or her emotions, or fails to understand others. It’s an understatement to say that the proverbial fishbowl in which leaders lead, becomes even more magnified and sets the entire team or organization on alert for heightened emotional interactions from that executive.
In working with leaders, an important question they must sit with is -- are they able to stay present, conscious and awake enough to have their own experiences, while simultaneously reaching out to better understand what might be going on for other people?
A recent survey of 1300 employees in hundreds of companies was highlighted in the Harvard Business Review (12/17/18) by David Maxfield and Justin Hale. In this survey, employees were asked about their leader’s style under stress and about the impact of that behavior on their work. The high percentage of leaders that were described as not responding well under stress were somewhat surprising (or not). Responses ranged from leadership behaviors that demonstrated close-mindedness, the need for control, charged emotional responses, to more benign behaviors such as ignoring, sidestepping, deceiving or lacking any desire to understand the situation or how the people involved were feeling about it.
Negative leadership behaviors that demonstrated little to no social awareness were cited for a large percentage of leaders. Participants stated that a leader’s temperament in crucial moments has indelible negative or positive impact on team performance. Fifty-three percent of leaders were perceived as being close-minded and controlling, versus open and curious. Forty-five percent were upset and emotional, instead of being calm and in control. Forty three percent of leaders were described as angry and heated, rather than being cool and collected. Thirty-seven percent were described as avoidant or side-stepping issues, and thirty percent were perceived as deceitful versus honest.
Patricia (not her real name) was particularly challenged, when under stress or when situations heated up at work, to have effective conversations with others’. She struggled to stay engaged and lean-in when conversations resulted in conflict between other leaders. In these situations, Patricia unconsciously left the room (emotionally and/or mentally) or she disengaged, rather than having a direct conversation. There are many good reasons why she disengaged when conversations became challenging, that had much to do with providing psychological safety during her childhood. However, as an adult and a leader, these behaviors were no longer serving her. When she disengaged in meetings, other leaders were left wondering what she really felt and thought about the issue. Some leaders developed a perception from this behavior that she either lacked confidence or was indifferent about the issues. In fact, neither of these perceptions were further from the truth.
Our work together included building her self-awareness to recognize what might be going on for her in heated situations. As Patricia was more able to recognize the situations that triggered her disengagement response, she could prepare a better, more socially aware response that kept her in conversations in a productive way. She practiced some delaying techniques to allow her nervous system to catch up with her, instead of hijacking her in tough situations. Patricia chose to take a deep breath before leaving metaphorically that gave her time to think about what she would say. This technique, along with putting both feet on the ground, allowed her to remain poised and calm in the moment. From this new centered place and small delay in timing of her responses, she was more able to ask questions from a place of curiosity that changed the flow and direction of the conversation before it became too hot for people to handle.
Having managed her emotions in the moment more effectively, her natural curiosity and analytical thinking powers were being put to good use within conflict conversations and in meetings that erupted negatively or were going sideways. As a result of her calm questioning style, other leaders noticed that she brought a calming influence to heated discussions, versus appearing to be absent. Over time, Patricia received positive feedback from leaders and peers, that she could easily read the room or understand what was going on for others. She was able to call on leaders that had not spoken or contributed to conversations. She could better read their thoughts or feelings, making careful invitations to bring diverse voices and perspectives into the room.
While Patricia is still working on these capabilities, her impact moved from neutral at best to positive, at a time when the company was going through tremendous change. She may still find that these skills do not come naturally to her, however, developing stronger self-management and social awareness capabilities has made her a more well-rounded and effective leader. Patricia claims to be a work in progress and her humility and curiosity fuel her awareness in social situations.
If leaders are unable to read social cues or engage in difficult conversations, their employees are more likely to consider leaving their jobs than employees where leaders can manage conflict or hard conversations with skill. If a minimum of one third of leaders cannot engage in healthy dialogue when the stakes are high (per this survey of 1300 employees) it’s no wonder employee engagement (whether active or passive) is at an all-time low today.
In companies where leaders can determine what they want in the moment, can challenge their stories about what might be going on for them, while simultaneously staying present for the stories of others, employees are more likely to stay motivated, engaged and productive. How a leader responds to and reads the thoughts and feelings of others is defining organizational health far beyond the individual leader’s success.
I’m grateful that decided to go out into the unknown five years ago. I was ready to explore, heal, create and wonder what might be next. I founded The Red Rock Consultancy for the specific purpose of working with C-level executives and their teams as an integral leadership development resource. I'm very grateful for the amazing leaders I coach and council.