Human beings crave coherence. We long to be true to ourselves and to act in a way that’s consistent with what we believe and value. We want to live and work authentically. This quest for coherence is hardwired; psychologists often refer to human beings as “meaning-making machines.” Our brains create coherence by knitting together our internal experience and what we observe in our environment, through an automatic process of narration that explains why we and others do what we do. As we repeat the resulting stories to ourselves (often unconsciously), they become scripts and routines that guide our actions. And instead of recognizing our stories for the constructions they are, we may mistakenly interpret them as immutable truths, as “the way things are.”
We’ve encountered countless stories among our leadership development and coaching clients that shape the way they think and lead, such as,
You have the right to have work that enriches and enlivens you, rather than diminishing you. This is my own personal declaration of human rights at work. It informs everything I do as a coach, management professor, and human being. Yet it’s surprisingly controversial. Managers and employees in organizations around the world have bought into the assumption that pay and other contracted rewards are all you can expect to receive from work (and all that you owe your employees) and that it’s unrealistic to hope for less-tangible benefits like trust, respect, autonomy, civility, and the opportunity to make a positive impact on others. This impoverished view of work plays out in workplace attitudes and behaviors that burn employees out. It also traps people in jobs that harm their well-being and sense of self.
When the conditions and demands you encounter at work — like workload, level of autonomy,
“Traditional approaches to staying focused don’t work for me.” “I know what I should do to be more productive, but I just don’t do it.” I hear sentences like these repeatedly from coaching clients. Many have read articles and books — and have even been trained in productivity methods — but still find staying focused to be an uphill battle. Why do people who know a lot about what helps people focus still struggle to focus? Through my work, I’ve identified several reasons, as well as strategies that may help you gain control.
Assuming that others’ preferred productivity strategies should work for you can yield frustration and a sense of defeat. A friend or an author may advocate their own approach so enthusiastically that it seems fail-proof if properly implemented. But if you experience the approach as inauthentic or constraining, it may not be right for you. Trying
Despite our best intentions, conversations can frequently veer into difficult territory, producing frustration, resentment, and wasted time and effort. Take David, one of my coaching clients. Recently appointed to a business school leadership role, he was eager to advance his strategic agenda. Doing so required building his team members’ commitment to and sense of ownership over the proposed changes. When people were slow to step up and take on key tasks and roles, David felt frustrated by what he saw as their unwillingness to assume responsibility.
For example, when he spoke with Leela, the head of the school’s specialized online master’s degree programs, he shared his plan to increase enrollment in these programs to boost revenue. He believed that the programs could accommodate 20% more students at the same staffing level with no loss of student satisfaction; Leela disagreed. David argued, and when Leela pushed back with concerns and
Most leaders know what strong motivation looks like. When I ask leadership development clients to describe the type of motivation they’d like to see in their teams, they mention qualities such as persistence, being a self-starter, having a sense of accountability for and commitment to achieving results, and being willing to go the extra mile on projects or to help other team members. But many leaders have little idea of how to boost or sustain that level of motivation.
Many leaders don’t understand that they are an integral part of the motivational ecosystem in their companies. The motivational qualities listed above appear most frequently when employees feel valued, trusted, challenged, and supported in their work — all things that leaders can influence. For better or worse, leaders’ attitudes and behaviors have a huge effect on employees’ drive and capacity to perform.
One problem that gets in the way is a mechanistic, instrumental
Burnout hurts. When you burn out at work, you feel diminished, like a part of yourself has gone into hiding. Challenges that were formerly manageable feel insurmountable. It’s the opposite end of the spectrum from engagement. The engaged employee is energized, involved, and high-performing; the burned-out employee is exhausted, cynical, and overwhelmed.
Research shows that burnout has three dimensions: emotional exhaustion, depersonalization, and reduced personal accomplishment. When you’re emotionally exhausted, you feel used up—not just emotionally, but often physically and cognitively as well. You can’t concentrate. You’re easily upset or angered, you get sick more often, and you have difficulty sleeping. Depersonalization shows up in feelings of alienation from and cynicism towards the people your job requires you to interact with. One of my coaching clients summed it up like this: “I feel like I’m watching myself in a play. I know my role, I can
Have you ever worked hard to improve a valuable skill and made real progress, only to have your development go unnoticed by the people who told you that you needed to improve? Perhaps this led you to look for a new job. Or maybe you’re a manager who’s been disappointed by poor performance and concluded that your low-performing employees are simply over-entitled? So you gave up on trying to help them improve and vented your frustration with colleagues behind closed doors.
Both of these commonplace experiences point to problems caused by a fixed mindset, in which we find it hard to believe that people can change. In the first scenario, an employee is judged as having low potential—and this assessment blinds leaders to the progress he’s made. In the second, the manager’s conviction that her employees will never change makes her less likely to engage in leadership behaviors that support
I’m sitting behind a long table, flanked by a marketing manager on my right and an entrepreneur on my left. We are an admission jury at an elite French business school. The candidate seated before us has spent the last two years toiling in a high-pressure preparatory school to get ready for this interview and the entrance exams that preceded it.
Right now, he’s falling apart. He can’t collect his thoughts. His answers to our questions are brief and incoherent. He is most likely unaware that he is continuously adjusting his glasses with visibly shaking hands. It’s painful to watch, and I want to give him a chance to reset.
“Take a minute and breathe,” I tell him. “You have plenty of time left.” He pants in distress.
“What’s happening right now?” I ask him. It’s a classic coaching question, designed to restore focus on the current moment.
Over the years, I’ve asked hundreds of executive students what skills they believe are essential for leaders. “The ability to give tough feedback” comes up frequently. But what exactly is “tough feedback”? The phrase connotes bad news, like when you have to tell a team member that they’ve screwed up on something important. Tough also signifies the way we think we need to be when giving negative feedback: firm, resolute, and unyielding.
But “tough” also points to the discomfort some of us experience when giving negative feedback, and to the challenge of doing so in a way that motivates change instead of making the other person feel defensive. Managers fall into a number of common traps. We might be angry at an employee and use the feedback conversation to blow off steam rather than to coach. Or we may delay giving needed feedback because we anticipate that the employee will
There are few things at work as stressful as feeling that you can’t communicate with someone who has an impact on how well you do your job and on the quality of your experience at work. How many times have you thought carefully about something you want to communicate to your boss, a colleague, or subordinate, only to find yourself leaving the conversation feeling angry or frustrated by how it went?
Karen (not her real name), a program officer for a nonprofit organization, had an experience like this when she first tried to convince her boss, Maria, to let her work from home three afternoons per week. She had thought carefully about how to make the most persuasive argument. She was prepared with a rationale that addressed her own needs as well as her employer’s, details of how she would manage communication while physically absent, and buy-in from colleagues.
Last month, Patrick Pichette, Google’s 52-year-old chief financial officer, announced that he was retiring to spend more time with his family. In his retirement announcement, Pichette gave voice to the sentiments of countless mid-career professionals when he asserted that “Life is wonderful” but it also involves a series of tradeoffs between professional endeavors and commitments to family and community.
Dual-career couples especially struggle with tradeoffs, not only between work and personal life, but between each of their careers (and most don’t have the option of chucking it all to travel the world together). Their lives are filled with negotiation. Whose career will take priority? If one partner accepts a job opportunity that requires the other partner to leave a good job and move elsewhere, for example, will the sacrifice be compensated in some way? How will domestic work (which may detract from career building) be divided up? And what