Friday, July 25, 2014

Commands you're hiding in your words

This is from the archives - a message that bears repeating:
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Story #1 - An aunt of mine went with us to the beach when I was just a little kid. She was a young teenager at that point, and the group decided to rent bicycles. She was not a regular cyclist, and to this day she’d tell you that athletics are not her forte. Anyhoo, they were riding their bikes down the side streets in Wildwood, NJ and she was saying to herself, "Don’t hit the parked cars, don’t hit the parked cars, don’t hit the – " when you know what happened. Bam! She t-boned one smack in the middle of the rear bumper.

Story #2 – When she was asked for gift suggestions, I was old enough to remember my mother telling my grandmother, the inveterate Christmas shopper, “I could use some new slacks. But whatever you do, don’t get pink – I have enough pink.” Guess what Grandma bought and wrapped for Mom’s Christmas present. Yep. Slacks the color of a tropical sunset – oh, were they ever pink.

My aunt in the first situation and my mom in the second were exasperated. But they weren’t aware that they had inadvertently hidden the wrong commands in their language. They told themselves and others to do exactly what they didn’t want them to do. If you repeat “don’t hit the parked cars” your brain hears everything but the “don’t.”  If you emphasize "no pink" the person retains "pink."  So you create conditions where you’re more likely to hit those cars and receive a gift that's destined to be returned.

If you're a parent, this concept may show itself in your disciplinary efforts.  Have you said any of these things to your children?
  • Don't jump on the bed!
  • Don't leave your toys laying all over the floor!
  • Don't talk back to me!
  • Don't tip your chair backward!
  • Etc. (the list could be endless Don't!)
The result of the don'ts is simply that they DO them anyway.  And you wind up feeling angry about their willful disobedience. Their behavior might be one part willfulness and testing of limits, but the other part is their hearing of your embedded command without the "don't".

You can choose to embed positive commands into your language. For example, if you would say to a loved one, “You can relax now,” you’re giving them a command embedded in a comforting statement. Or you encourage a friend to talk by saying, “Tell me what you were thinking about that situation.” 

Embedded commands can help prompt a response from a person just as well as a direct question can, but they can have a softer touch. This helps you in situations where the person you’re talking to might be feeling sensitive, or where the topic itself might be emotional or controversial.

If you think that someone has overreacted to a “simple” question you asked them, think about whether you asked a question with embedded commands. Your commands might be communicating assumptions that aren’t valid, or might imply judgment. “Does that outfit make you feel fat?” sends the message that feeling fat is relevant to the situation – in other words, might suggest that you think the outfit makes them look fat. If, on the other hand, you want to be supportive of that friend’s weight loss efforts you could choose to embed a positive command, “Does that outfit make you feel sexy?” Or if you want to choose to be neutral a preferable question would be, “How does that outfit make you feel?” 

Your language holds so much information of which you’re not conscious, but that impacts your emotions and the quality of your relationships with others. If you choose to be more aware of the manner in which things are expressed to you and by you, you can have so much more insight into what’s creating the dynamic between you and other people. You can be better able to use your critical thinking to separate fact from opinion. You can become more skillful at relating to others in a win-win manner. And that benefits everyone.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

What do you do when you screw up?

It's a given that if you are stretching yourself and your
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capabilities you are going to mess up from time to time.  What can make the difference, though, between the people who prevail and succeed and those who struggle, is the manner in which they deal with the inevitable setback.  How do you handle your own mistakes?  How do you respond to others' mess-ups in your workplace?

You could characterize yourself (and maybe even your work climate) as one of these characters where mistakes are concerned:
  1. Mistake repeater - This is the person who seems like an exile from the movie "Groundhog Day."  They walk the same path over and over, and sometimes it seems like they will never figure out exactly what the mistake was, much less how to correct it.  Some skills and lessons are hard to learn, and some people are quicker studies than others.  Some problems and problem behaviors contain a lot of variables that can create complexity.  The key is whether the same unsuccessful remedies are applied repeatedly after having been proven ineffective.  There's something to be said for tenacity, for perseverance, but ultimately your business doesn't survive on good intentions and effort.
  2. Mistake avoider - The mistake avoider believes that no action is better than the wrong action.  They will analyze an issue half to death, certain that the perfect and definitive answer is right around the corner.  The problem with this person's approach is that timing will eventually become a key issue, and if no action is taken they will fail just as surely as they would doing the wrong thing.  Besides, sometimes you don't know what the "right" action or decision is until you do something and see the results it creates.
  3. Mistake preventer - The mistake preventer does his or her due diligence ahead of time.  This person thinks about the obstacles and contingencies, and plans for them up front.  The preventer's actions provide him with an elevated probability of success, with one caveat:  at some point the preventer can morph into the avoider if she spends too much time planning and not enough time implementing.
  4. Mistake handler - The handler is great at sweeping up the messes, at responding to crises.  They are quick to develop and implement alternative remedies, and they sometimes even enjoy the adrenaline rush that comes from responding to an emergency.  Errors create the opportunity for them to stretch their mental muscles, to ride to the rescue.  In some cases the handler doesn't have enough motivation to prevent mistakes - what would be the fun in that?  In the meantime, cost, time and customer satisfaction might be placed at risk. 
  5. Mistake prosecutor - The prosecutor is like the detective in the old movies who assembles all of the suspects into the study and keeps them there until he interrogates each and determines who killed the heiress.  The prosecutor finds great importance in accurately assigning the blame.  In addition, the "enthusiastic" prosecutor gathers additional negative energy by assuming a bad intention behind the mistake.  A good pep talk, lecture, or browbeating snaps the offender into line and assures that the mistake will never never happen again.  This sets a hostile tone in the workplace, and increases the likelihood that the next murder to be solved will be his - and there will be numerous suspects with adequate motive!
If you want to produce a consistently high quality work product you need to engage employees at every level in solving and preventing problems.  You have some leadership choices to make along the way, including the manner in which you communicate about mistakes, and whether your approach is to fix it for now or fix it for good.  It's often quicker and cheaper to apply spit and bailing wire rather than it is to implement a full-scale solution, but if you do it this way you're choosing to wear the hat of the mistake repeater.  Ultimately it will catch up with you and you will be handling the same problem again.

Mistakes grow when they are covered up, and if you have played the role of the prosecutor for too long you are probably already experiencing the negative consequences associated with problems discovered only once they have grown to 800-pound gorilla size.  People will only readily admit to errors when they have no fear of retribution or unreasonable censure.  It is more important to solve the problem than it is for every participant to feel the full weight of the blame.  They will feel badly enough about it on their own without having the prosecutor pile on.

Mistakes are best handled at the closest point to that at which they occur.  This means you need to involve your staff in solving them, and also in preventing future repeats.  Use describing words rather than judging ones to keep an adult-to-adult tone in the conversation.  Sure, talk about the ramifications of the mess-up, but also talk about the benefits associated with solving it.  A mistake is an opportunity to improve.

It is said that it's useless to cry over spilled milk, and you shouldn't shout over it either.  Clean up the spill together, straighten up the cup, figure out how not to spill it again, and then get on with your day.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

You Can Lead a Team That Rocks!

Are you responsible for the performance of other people? 
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Would you like to be the sort of person that inspires loyalty, top performance and an energized workplace?  Would you like to be known to be a developer of tomorrow's leaders in your company? Would you like to create a well-oiled machine that produces sustainable, outstanding results for your business?

Outstanding team leadership isn't a talent that has to be inborn - it can be developed.  You can build upon your individual strengths and your background to increase your results, expand your area of influence, and multiply your career development opportunities.  And you don't have to wait for something that's sponsored inside your company to give yourself a leg up on your success!

Join Us Starting August 20th!
If you answered yes to one or more of the above questions you may be a candidate for our 9-session workshop series, Team Leadership, offered via a partnership between Alternative HR and Summit HRD in York, PA.  The series will include topics such as:

·        Successful Team Leadership
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·        Goal Setting for Success
·        Turning Solutions into Action
·        Organizational Goal Setting
·        Managing Your Time
·        Motivation and Confidence
·        Building a Successful Team
·        Creating and Managing Performance
·        Employee Evaluation and Discipline
·        Decision Making and Problem Solving
·        People Skills Development
·        Productivity Development
·        Time Use Evaluation
·        Copyrighted Goal Planning Tool
·        Live issues From Participating Peers
·        Direct Practical Application in your Biz
·        And More!

Each workshop session will be hands-on and interactive, and will last approximately 2 hours.  They will be led by Julie Poland, founder of SummitHRD.  Ms. Poland has more than 24 years of experience in helping businesses and their leaders improve results through people, planning, and process improvement.

How much difference would it make to you and your business to improve your team by improving your team leadership skills?  Prior participants have experienced results like:

1.      Improved Productivity
2.      Improved Morale
3.      Better Customer Relationships
4.      Lower Cost of Turnover
5.      Less Overtime for You and Others
6.      More Engaged Employees
7.      Fewer Preventable Mistakes
8.      Higher Profits
9.   Promotions and Higher Salaries

Contact Kellie Boysen at Alternative HR ( or Julie Poland at SummitHRD ( to discuss how you might participate!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Annette Simmons says you might be bug soup

Annette Simmons, author of the book"Whoever Tells the Best Story Wins," 
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was speaking to a group of marketers, coaches and storytellers on the topic of reinvention
.  She talked about how you don't start anything from scratch.  There is a process of destruction that has to precede creation or resurrection.

She used the example of the caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation that has become the symbol of reinvention, of rebirth.  But Simmons' next comment took the attendees aback for a moment:  "The caterpillar spends a lot of time in the cocoon.  While we're in there we're bug soup and we need to acknowledge that."  

Bug soup.  Have you ever thought about it that way before?  The caterpillar enters the chrysalis looking sort of cute in a caterpillar-ish sort of way, then emerges beautiful and flying in its refined state.  Have you stopped to consider the detail of what happens behind the walls of the chrysalis?  Bug soup.  What an apt description for how it feels sometimes when the going seems really hard.  There is a time of languishing, unattended, feeling destroyed with no re-emergence in sight.  

Simmons says that sometimes in the process of reinvention we might need to take time to back up and take another road.  "Backing up is not a waste of time.  Sometimes you can't go forward without examining the past."  One of her other points is that we need to experience our feelings fully, however uncomfortable they might feel.  "Emotions buried alive don't die," she advises.   You have to be in them, experience them, acknowledge them, before you can move on from them.  

She told a story about a team building exercise she was supposed to do with a group of military folks in the early 2000's,just after the weapons of mass destruction weren't found in Iraq where they were expected to be.  The group couldn't even consider going through her planned activities to build the team until they had the opportunity to discuss the elephant in the room - "Why couldn't we find them?"  They were devastated, haunted by the feeling that they had failed in their mission.  They had to deal with that first in order to free themselves to move forward.

You could expect that almost anyone would want change to be more like the removal of an adhesive bandage - one quick rip that hurts a bit, but then it's over with - quickly - and we get on with our lives.  Real transformation isn't like that.  We have to become bug soup first if we're going to emerge and fly.

Monday, July 21, 2014

What you can learn about reinvention from Sankofa

The good news - and for some, the bad news - about personal
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and professional development is that you are never "done."  Your life experiences continue to evolve, and if you are to master them you evolve too.  You can choose to reinvent and renew yourself outside of some external influence.  It's a decision rather than a reaction, and this choice of continuous improvement puts you in the driver's seat.

One of the principles in personal development comes from the west African legend of Sankofa.  The story, told a few years ago during an online reinvention webinar, stuck with me, and so I'm sharing it here with you.

Sankofa was a bird who had a stick.  He was flying on a journey, and in the process dropped the stick.  As he progressed on his journey, Sankofa realized that he needed the stick.  So he went back to fetch it, and then proceeded on his way.

The point of the Sankofa story is this - sometimes there are things in the past, in the "former you" that still have value.  There may be things that you learned, traits and talents that you have forgotten you have, or relationships that used to nourish you.  Consider what was good about the past and take it with you into your future.  Going back to fetch it does not mean that you are not moving forward.  Assemble the resources you need for your journey, even if it means that you have to backtrack temporarily to gather them, to shore them up.

Notice in the image of Sankofa above that the bird's body is pointing forward (toward the future) while he turns his head backward so his beak can retrieve the egg.  The egg symbolizes life force or lifeblood that will help Sankofa on his continued journey forward.

You might have circumstances in your business or in your life that are requiring you to retool or even completely reinvent yourself.  But remember Sankofa - take with you the good things of the past that can help you in the future.  You are not starting from scratch, from ground zero.  You are already on your way.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Why are you in that meeting, anyway?

It's really expensive to be sitting around that table
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looking at your colleagues and direct reports.  Communication is important, of course, and meetings are vehicles that allow you to make sure that everyone involved receives the same information at the same time.  (They might interpret it differently, but you'll be saying the same thing to the whole group.)

Some leaders sacrifice communication because their meetings feel like a waste of time - or deteriorate into conflict.  But you can increase the productivity of your meeting time if you recognize the purpose behind the gathering and then structure the agenda to suit the purpose.  You can make the most of your group sessions by knowing clearly what outputs you want from the time invested:

Potential Meeting Purposes

  1. Communicate downward from management- One-way informational, perhaps with Q & A included.  This leaves an opening for two-way communication, and will come across as less directive (autocratic?) than it might if you issue an edict via a memo.
  2. Reporting among functions - Generally one-way informational, used to hold people accountable for functional accomplishments, and to keep other functions in the loop for a purpose like customer satisfaction or quality.  Note:  If there's no give and take the reporting can be done more efficiently via email.  Save your meeting time.
  3. Problem solving - A topic is thrown out on the table for the group to discuss and to develop a solution.  The decision making process may vary, but the group should be told who will make it: the leader, the leader after team input,  or the team by consensus. 
  4. Implementation - In this type of meeting, the leader or another participant brings a task to the table, and the purpose of the meeting is to allocate subsidiary tasks to participants.  The meeting output is typically a follow-up document, plan, or email to confirm the action that is to be taken, and by whom.
  5. Brainstorming - When done most effectively, this meeting is used to generate ideas, not to filter them and/or evaluate them.
  6. Educational - To download more and/or new information to the meeting participants.  This might be leader-driven, or delegated to a specialist participant, or handled by a guest speaker.
This isn't to say that there aren't more categories - this is a sampling of meeting purposes (or purposes for meeting segments within a larger gathering.)  If you aren't receiving the results you want from your staff, take a look at your recent meeting agendas and see whether you have a pattern of topics or of methods that are out of alignment with the outcome you want to achieve:
  • Perhaps you want more employee input, but your recent meetings have been all about communicating "down."  Your participants might have the perception that you don't really want their input if you're not habitually asking and providing time for them to answer.
  • If you want better decision making, make sure the group has the data to analyze the situation effectively.  Then manage the process of gathering individual interpretations early on in the conversation, weighing alternatives, and later converging on an agreed-upon decision.
  • If you're wanting follow-through from meeting items and aren't getting it, check to make sure your agenda includes a spot for assigning accountabilities, and a report-out segment in the next agenda.
  • If you want more teamwork, check whether you as the leader are consuming all of the agenda and doing too much of the talking.  Spread it around as a development opportunity for the various members of the team.  Give the group opportunities to discuss, to interact, to make decisions together.(This also helps in the case that you would unexpectedly have to be out - or would be promoted!)
A frequently asked question is whether team building is an appropriate and effective agenda item.  Team building is a side-effect of effective meetings, team leadership, task structure and work proximity, not an agenda item.  You can talk about teamwork or sponsor facilitated experiences all day long in the meeting room, but if you are creating a competitively hostile work environment, or one of perceived scarcity, your team building meeting agenda item will be sloughed off like so much sunburn.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

The hidden benefit in planning ahead

It's said that people spend more time planning a two-week vacation
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than they do planning their lives.  Do you agree that it's true?  If so, then why?

Part of the reason is the hidden benefit found when you plan ahead for some event with positive associations attached to it -  the anticipation.

When you know that you're headed for an appealing vacation destination:

  • You can Google it and see photos of it
  • You can map it and find out exactly how you want to get there, and how long it will take
  • You can start to imagine the activities that you're going to engage in there
  • You might even be able to "feel" the sun and "smell" the air 
  • You select your clothing, and perhaps you buy a few new things
  • You talk about it and daydream about it
By the time you have done all of your preparation you have already spent mental time there.  The anticipation of the vacation, even though you're not yet baking on the beach or smelling the mountain air, has filled you with positive expectation.  It makes the next few days of drudgery (if that's what you have) easier to bear, because you've got it coming up.  Only ten more days to cross off on the calendar, then nine, eight, seven, and so forth before you're hauling your prize trout out of the spring-fed stream.

Sure, it can be fun to decide spontaneously to pick up and haul off on an adventure, one where you decide every day where the next day will take you.  We won't even get into the subject of whether you have brought the right clothing or enough money for the on-the-spot adventure.  The thing that you miss when you simply up and bug out, though, is the bonus enjoyment - the anticipation. The last minute vacay gives you the 4 days or 10 days that you are on the road, but you don't benefit from the exciting ramp-up beforehand.  

Is it possible that you don't derive full value from other parts of your life if you don't plan ahead?  You might think that sounds a bit starchy and predictable.  But there's no denying the pleasure involved in looking forward, knowing good things are to come in short order.  Where are you going, and when?