A Case for Friendships at Work

I’m on a highly social European vacation. Much of my socializing is happening with friends I made through work.

I find myself remembering a series of essays in The New York Times on the nature of friendship. On April 18, 2021, the Times’ Style Magazine published a Culture Issue titled “With Friends.” An entire issue devoted to friendships. All sorts of friendships.

The mini-articles were quirkily titled and coalesced into a marvelous glossary of the many reasons for friendship. Friends Who Cook Together. Friends Who Summer Together. Friends Who Share a Language. Friends Who Party Together. Friends Who Came Up Together. Friends Who Saw It All.

IntrIgued? I found myself thinking of the different friendships in my life. Past, present. Lasting, fleeting. And the extraordinary impact that these friendships have had in and on my life. I found myself fixating, most especially, on the friendships we forge through work.

  • Clients Who Became Friends
  • Mentor/Protegee Friends
  • Friends Who Create Together
  • Work Friends

Friendship isn’t a big thing – it’s a million little things."

Paulo Coelho

More categories from the New York Times Magazine. As I devoured these mini-articles, I thought of the advice many of us were given about relationships at work: You’re not here to make friends. Don’t bring your personal stuff to work. Keep things professional. Make sure to separate professional and personal.

Insanity. Utter Insanity.

What animates this antiquated “keep it professional, please” mindset? Especially when all evidence shows that as we move into positions of power, we’re more likely to hire someone we have worked with in the past, someone we know well, someone whose expertise we trust, someone with whom we have developed a deeply personal relationship. A friend.

Behind all these well-worn “friendship warnings,” I am convinced, lies the fear of things getting messy. A little “too real.” Too human. And the fear that we might not be able to handle that.

Hogwash. Life sometimes gets messy. You can handle it.

Let us deconstruct some of the myths behind the “making friends at work” warnings.

Myth #1: Don’t be friends with someone who reports to you.

Meet Mike. Mike had worked in the same manufacturing business for over 25 years. He was affable. Had many close friends in the business. There was a crew of 12 colleagues who every spring went on vacation together. Then, seemingly overnight, Mike was promoted from a senior Sales role to the General Manager of the business. Suddenly, Mike was the boss of his 11 vacation buddies.

Easy? No. Mike decided that going on vacation with his direct reports had to stop. As the business was tasked by Corporate Headquarters to down-size, Mike had to terminate employment for some of his 11 friends. 

No, not easy. But easier, Mike discovered, because there were strong bonds of friendship. Easier because his friends understood the tough decisions he had to make. Easier because, deep down, Mike’s friends loved him. Friendship kept the difficult part of being a boss “real.” It kept the tough decisions of a leader more human. And friendship survived the tough decisions.

Myth #2: It’s harder to hold a friend accountable at work.

What is this about, really? I can have a tough conversation with a colleague who matters little to me but fear having it with a friend? A difficult chat with a friend creates greater discomfort even though I have a relationship that supposedly involves shared history, honesty and trust?

Chances are, if a transparent work conversation with a friend feels difficult to you, there are opportunities for you to look at how you handle conflict in ALL of your relationships. Especially the personal ones. If we shy away from difficult conversations with folks we’re close with, we are likely to do the same in our professional relationships. 

Chances are, we’re keeping ALL of our relationships light and a bit transactional – and try to shield them from discomfort. Don’t. Summon the courage to have difficult conversations in all aspects of your life. Summon the courage to hold your friends accountable. In life, at work. It’s actually easier with a friend. And yes, it does take courage.

Myth #3: I don’t wish to give preferential treatment to a friend.

Well, then don’t. I do not suggest this smugly. There may be the pressure we feel inside to be “especially nice” to a friend at work. The fear that we risk losing a friendship if we have to set a boundary with a friend. The worry that others will think we give preferential treatment to Stephanie or Miguel because, well, they’re our friends. Our protegees. Our “guys.” Our “gals.”

Yes, all the levers of ethics and fairness and professional integrity get triggered when a colleague is or becomes a friend. Know what? Those triggers NEED to get triggered if you wish to be a professional at the highest level. They are integral to playing your highest professional game – with anyone, friend or not. 

Please remember - the advantages and benefits of a professional friendship are extravagant. We have a rich measure of trust. We communicate in short-cuts. We play on a foundation of powerful shared history. We “get” each other. Why would you deprive yourself of that!

One of the mini-articles in the New York Times is titled “Old Friends.” In it, legendary Spanish film director Pedro Almodovar reflects on the beauty of his friendships with actors he has worked with for decades.

I have this stable group of actors I work with, Almodovar writes, but I only ever put a face on a character once I’ve finished the first draft of a script. After that, I can start to build a film around the actor, and I know the necessary chemistry will kick in.

Penelope Cruz and Rossy de Palma are two actresses with roles in his most recent film “Parallel Mothers.” Almodovar first worked with de Palma in 1982, with Cruz in 1997. They are a part of his band of actors.

Rossy’s the one who keeps me up-to-date on the impression our films make on young artists, Almodovar explains, and Penelope always has an eye on me, the way any selfless daughter would behave with a father she adores.

Nice. Really, really nice.

Old friends at work. What a beautiful thing. Cultivate some, will you!

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How to Be a Little Less Conflict-Avoidant

It happened just last week.

Frank and Natalia, Heads of separate business units in a biotech firm, are collaborating on a strategic global project. Frank has prepared the monthly Powerpoint update to the Executive Team. He’s partnering with an external vendor who has given the slide updates a polished, highly visual look. Text has been reduced to minimal bullet points. Frank is thrilled.

The day before the presentation, Natalia – who has been subsumed with departmental fire-fighting and had no time to hand in her slides or co-craft the presentation – submits the information she wants included the slide deck. Natalia’s additions are wordy, unwieldy, way too detailed. They in no way mesh with the presentation that was just created.

Frank is enraged.

And it’s not the first time Natalia has enraged him.

Conflict cannot survive without your participation." 

Dr. Wayne Dyer

We all have different inclinations about how to act in such a situation. The Thomas-Kilmann Inventory (TKI) is a prominent instrument that delineates most individuals’ preferred conflict-engagement styles. According to the TKI, 5 major human tendencies may come into play when we find ourselves in conflict with others. There is avoiding conflict altogether. Accommodating the other party. Competing. Compromising. And collaborating.

I have already tried to collaborate with Natalia, Frank might think to himself. She’s completely unavailable.

Rage. More rage.

I’m not here to tell Frank what to do. If you’re a competer, chances are you will exacerbate a dilemma and not resolve it. If you’re prone to avoiding and accommodating, you’re likely to fuel your inner rage. And if you lean toward compromise (that thing Mom and Dad instilled in us as the always desirable outcome), you’re likely to feel deflated and unhappy, most of the time. 

Let us consider another path, shall we! It is predicated on the belief that habitual avoidance never works. And it affirms that conversation is invariably a good thing.

5 Tips to Lessen Our Conflict Avoidance

1. Don’t call it conflict

Labeling a conversation as “addressing a conflict” is loaded. So unload your conversation. Semantics matter. Unload it from this label or equally charged synonyms. You’re not here to have a difficult conversation. A crucial conversation. A showdown. Overcome a challenge.

No. You’re simply meeting to share your perspective on a matter or situation. You are doing so to open the door to a conversation. You are also interested in learning about the other person’s perspective. If the conversation leads to new ideas and new paths forward – GREAT. Bottom-line is, you’re simply having a conversation. That’s it.

2. Prepare for the conversation

If the situation you plan to discuss with your colleague makes you nervous, has caused you anxiety or propelled obsessive thinking within you, it may be helpful to write down in advance what you wish to say in this conversation. The act of writing tends to immediately calm us down. It helps us think of the simplest, cleanest, least verbose way of expressing what’s on our mind. We are literally gathering our thoughts. And we’re likely catching any language that might sound inflammatory and not helpful in the conversation.

Important: Just because we wrote it down doesn’t mean we have to exactly say it that way. Do not “cling to your script.” Trust that the right words will be uttered in the moment, informed by the preparatory writing you did.

3. Use an I-Statement

An I-Statement is the simplest, cleanest and most powerful way of saying something that feels hard to express. Here is the structure of an I-Statement:

Were Frank to use an I-Statement with Natalia, it might go something like this: I get very frustrated when you hand in your materials at the last minute because it causes us to totally change something that several of us have worked hard on and necessitates hours of additional work.

The key to a successful I-Statement is that we deliver it calmly and matter-of-factly. Voices are not raised. Because it focuses on OUR experience, it is hard for the other person to argue with an I-Statement. The beauty and power of the third leg of the statement is that it invites other persons to think of the impact of their behavior on us – something likely not in their consciousness while they were behaving as they were.

4. Listen to their story

This is often the most difficult part in any conversation, especially when we feel slighted by another person, mistreated or misunderstood. We want to keep talking and talking and talking until we know that they GOT IT. Fully understand how infuriating their behavior has been to us.

Stop. Shut up and listen and allow the other person to tell you about their challenges and frustrations. It’s really not that hard. Stop talking. Choose to be curious. Listen. You don’t need to agree or disagree with anything in this very moment. Don’t need to argue or rebut. Simply stop talking and listen.

5. Don’t force an outcome

You may find yourself entering the conversation with a very clear notion of the 3 action items that would instantly solve a dilemma. You know exactly what things you want the other person to do differently. You’re itching to say Look, here’s what I need from you. Got it?

You’re allowed to ask for those things, of course. But why not simply allow a potential outcome to come from the other person? What might we do differently going forward? is a powerful question. It’s not What can YOU do differently? (potential attack). The we-version is collaborative. It invites a path forward; it doesn’t force it. And when the path comes from the other person, s/he is way more likely to commit to it.

The ultimate non-forcing? It has been drilled into us that a conversation needs to end with action outcomes. Perhaps what was needed, in this particular moment, was just the conversation. More time to think, perhaps. Another follow-up conversation, perhaps. No forced outcomes. How liberating is that.

So it’s not really that hard.

We’re merely having a conversation. Drop the stories in your head that heighten the mental drama around a chat: We’re resolving a conflict. We’re having a difficult conversation. This will be a showdown.

Drop them. 

We’re simply having a conversation. I’m here to share my perspective and listen. I will do so with a measure of skill and hopefully kindness.

That’s it. There may actually be no conflict. Go figure.

4 Everyday Trust Builders

In his classic book “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team,” Patrick Lencioni keeps it simple.

Lencioni offers a 5-stage pyramid as a metaphor for how team behaviors frequently play out.

At the top of the pyramid are our business results, or more specifically, our inattention to these results. All the targets that were not met, the projections that were missed. And the attention that was not paid along the way.

In a time of supply chain disruptions, these disruptions will, indeed, cause unmet projections.

In more predictable times, we tend to blame a lack of commitment or accountability on outcomes not met. Not so fast, suggests Lencioni.

The bottom of his pyramid, where it all begins, is trust, or the lack of it. When we don’t trust, we don’t have the critical conversations that need to happen. We don’t fully commit. We don’t hold ourselves or others accountable. We don’t deliver.

A lack of trust dilutes every single business effort.

It derails all other efforts in life.

Remember, teamwork begins by building trust. And the only way to do that is to overcome our need for invulnerability.”

Patrick Lencioni

I am reminded of the importance of trust every time I listen to a business executive address a Town Hall meeting, every time I catch a politician make a public statement in front of a camera, every time a sales person seeks to engage me. I watch, I listen, and I do a gut check:

Can I trust you?

I think about you and me. Our spheres of influence. Our everyday interactions with folks. Colleagues, clients, friends. Our laboratory for everyday leadership.

Can they trust US?

Let’s assume competence, for a moment. Let’s assume that we honor our commitments.

Beyond these 2 C’s, it boils down to consistent behaviors that embody our character, doesn’t it? Behaviors that unambiguously signal that we can be trusted. These signals are transmitted in nanoseconds. Here’s the tricky part. The specific behaviors can be learned. They will, however, always inhibit trust the moment they become rehearsed or faked.

Fake it ‘til you feel it doesn’t work when we seek to build trust.

Here are 4 of those behavioral signals. I think of them as Everyday Trust Builders.

You speak the truth.

You have your own bullshit meter. You keep your own crap in check. The platitudes. The easy responses. Yeah, they often sound good. And folks can tell when you’re running on automatic pilot.

You understand context and know what to say when. When there are things you can’t divulge, you don’t pretend to be transparent. You acknowledge that there are things you can’t talk about. You stay real even when you have to be strategic. That is speaking your truth. You don’t avoid it with pretty talk.

You shut up.

You invite conversation. In conversation, you let others talk. You listen to the words they say. To the deeper meaning behind the words. You don’t fake-agree. You don’t fake-listen. You give evidence that you have listened AND understood. If you don’t understand, you ask for clarification. You engage with sincere curiosity.

You appreciate.

You appreciate folks at every organizational level. The attendant in the parking garage. The receptionist. The new hire. The accountant who is retiring after 30 years of service. The Head of the Board. Your competitor.

Your appreciation doesn’t hide in your thoughts, it is actively expressed. It is expressed not with clichés and platitudes. Your every word and action explicitly show that you have noticed, and that your appreciation is heartfelt.

You are FULLY present.

That means you show up on time. Show up mentally prepared. Show up with heart and mind intact. You don’t pretend to not have feelings. Yes, you show up undiminished, as the whole person that you truly are, beyond the confines of your job function.

We don’t remember our Everyday Trust Builders only on a good day. We remember them on a tiring day, on a frustrating day, on the occasional day from hell. Yes, every day.

The more we remember, the sweeter our interactions become.

The day from hell becomes a sweeter day from hell.

The shift happens nanosecond by nanosecond. We just need to remember.

Our world gives us lots of reasons to be cynical and distrust. Be a trust-builder. Remember your trust-building behaviors, one nanosecond at a time.

Trust will unfold in delectable ways.

When 2 Are Better Than 1

Power sharing, Marvin Bower who grew McKinsey & Company into the organizational consulting juggernaut that it is, famously told Goldman Sachs, never works.

Mr. Bower may have to eat his words. Because it often does.

While some well-known companies with Co-CEOS – the software company SAP and Chipotle Mexican Grill immediately come to mind – have not performed all that well in times of stress, the findings by Marc A. Feigen, Michael Jenkins, and Anton Warendh, as disseminated in the current issue of Harvard Business Review (“Is It Time to Consider Co-CEOs?,” HBR, July/August 2022) tell a different story.

Faigen, Jenkins and Warendh examined data from 87 public companies that identify their leaders as Co-CEOs. The authors found that these firms, on average, tend to produce considerably more value for shareholders than their peers do. While Co-CEOs were in charge, they generated an average shareholder return of 9.5% per year - significantly more than the average of 6.9% for traditionally led companies.

Co-leadership should permeate every organization at every level.”

David A. Heenan, Co-Author with Warren Bennis of Co-Leaders: The Power of Great Partnerships

Having Co-CEOs is not the right solution for every company. Anyone who has ever had to co-lead any sort of initiative with another person likely remembers just how challenging many aspects of the endeavor were.

The advantages of having Co-CEOs, nevertheless, seem blatantly obvious. Co-CEOs can bring deep and diverse competencies, backgrounds and perspectives to the job. They can be in two places at once – literally so. They can form a potent left-brain/right-brain partnership. Together, they can much more effectively master the increasingly complex corporate functions that CEOs today are expected to manage.

How do companies ensure that Co-CEOship succeeds? What are some key factors that set Co-CEOs up to deliver on the tantalizing premise that 2 are, indeed, better than 1?

I cherish the very practical guidelines proposed by the HBR authors. Whether or not you actually are a CEO or Co-CEO, consider how these suggestions apply to any scenario or circumstance in which you are asked to co-lead with another human.

8 Keys to Co-CEO Success

1. We Both Want It to Work.

It sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But please think of the many situations in your life when you may have been asked to co-lead a project, and either you, your partner, or both of you did not truly wish to share leadership.

When we are coerced into co-leadership, we are sabotaged from the start. When we like the notion of co-leadership but not with “that person,” we are sabotaged from the start. When one person, deep down, wants to run the show on their own, success is sabotaged from the start.

Don’t fake your way around this one. It is the prerequisite for all the rest.

2. We Have Shared Values.

Co-CEOs fail when they have different values. We have taken the time to clearly articulate our values to each other. Our values are conscious to ourselves and our co-leader. We both understand that if we wish to succeed, honesty, trust, respect and the willingness to compromise need to be among the core values we share.

3. Our Skill Sets Are Complementary.

I think of a classic hiring dilemma: You have 2 great finalists for a key role. They both are supremely qualified candidates. They each bring their own unique set of expertise and perhaps a different sort of leadership style to the role. You secretly think to yourself, I wish I could grab the best of each person and merge it into one.

The scenario screams potential Co-CEOship, doesn’t it? We don’t get “2 is better than 1” if the two individuals seem like mirror images of each other. We don’t get the expanded thinking, the augmented areas of expertise, the bigger performance range. Furthermore, the more complementary the skills sets are, the less likely it is the leaders will have major conflicts with each other.

4. We Understand Our Responsibilities  

Being Co-CEOs does NOT mean we act like Siamese twins who do everything together. The opposite is usually true. We have distinct portfolios that we own. We get to devote quality time to these portfolios. The portfolios are aligned with our strengths.

We touch base with each other frequently. And we have agreed on which decisions have to be made jointly and which each of the Co-CEOs can make on their own. This is how we maximize the power of being able to be in two places at once.

5. We Have Mechanisms for Resolving Conflict.

We understand that we will have disagreements. We actually welcome those disagreements. We have prepared for those moments in advance by agreeing to how we plan to communicate with each other when we strongly disagree on a matter. Our mechanisms for resolving a conflict might involve calling on one or several members of the Board for guidance. At SAP, Co-CEOship was supported by a strong executive chairman who could settle disagreements and provide focus. Most importantly, we have agreed up front on an approach to conflict resolution.

6. We Project Unity.

Even when we have disagreed on a matter, we choose to speak to our team and employees with a unified voice. When we don’t, we sow doubt, confusion and insecurity.

At Jefferies Financial Group, for example, led by Co-CEOs for the last two decades, the top team reports to both leaders who make decisions together. Speaking to one of us, says Brian Friedman, one of the presidents, is considered speaking to both of us.

7. We Share Accountability.

Even when we have separate portfolios, we are jointly responsible for overall performance. That means we are also accountable for outcomes produced by our Co-CEO, even when they may have fallen short of expectations. We own performance as a team. We do not throw each other under the bus.

8. We Have Full Backing from Our Board.

Our Board is fully committed to the success of having two Co-CEOs. It is philosophically aligned with the benefits of co-leadership. It resists the temptation of favoring one CEO over another. While the Board in its entirety or individual Board members are available to help mediate conflict, if necessary, the Board understands that undue meddling - never helpful in the case of a solo-CEO - will be exponentially more damaging in a Co-CEO structure.

As an Executive Coach, I see on a weekly basis the power of having a sounding board, and how a sounding board helps my clients find clarity and make better decisions faster.

A Co-CEO is a supreme sounding board and thought partner.

Two CEOs can do a brilliant job of keeping each other grounded in times of turmoil and crisis. For 17 years, Chip Kaye was the Co-CEO of the private equity firm Warburg Pincus. He pointedly notes that having a Co-CEO helps individuals keep their egos in check.

That’s not a bad benefit, is it?

The Gifts of the Professional Good-Bye

I remember saying good-bye to my trainer. I had worked out with Ron for over 5 years. Liked the discipline. Appreciated Ron’s focused and not overly chatty demeanor. As part of the simplification of my life, I decided to do without the trainer part. Focus on swimming laps in my pool and going to the gym once in a while on my own.

Simple, right? Well, as the moment to tell Ron approached, I found myself hemming and hawing. Wanted to procrastinate. Wanted to find the “perfect moment” to say it. I suddenly felt awkward and tongue-tied. It was tough to get the words out.

Endings are hard. Good-byes are difficult.

This simple ending made me think of the many professional situations in our lives when the time comes to say good-bye. Because we have accepted a position in another company. We may have been let go. We got transferred within our company to a new role, a new business, a different location. And then there are all those moments when we stay but an individual we have worked with closely moves on.

Saying good-bye is part of the dance of life.

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying good-bye so hard.” 

Winnie the Pooh

Don’t sweat the good-bye, and don’t avoid it. A loss is a loss. If you have spent any time at all in the corporate world, you have likely attended a workshop about how we humans move through change. You’ve seen a graph about the emotions we’re likely to experience. The emotional change curve, as it is often called, is based on the wisdom and books of Dr. Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross (On Grief and Grieving and On Death and Dying).

Yes, it was “just” a professional relationship. And yes, feelings will kick in. Saying good-bye is not a mere transactional moment. It’s an opportunity to acknowledge a loss. It’s also an opportunity to celebrate the rich encounters you and I had. Even if what we had was not always easy or friction-free.

Here are some Do’s and Don’ts you may wish to consider when it is time for a professional good-bye. This I know - you will have many opportunities to apply them:

Good-bye DO’s:

Good-bye DON’Ts:

Saying goood-bye to Ron reminded me just how uncomfortable a good-bye can be - and how powerful it is, at the same time, when we show up for it. Do the dance. Choose to show up. Be genuine. Be prepared. And tap the part of you that will enjoy the dance.

A year ago, in the depths of the pandemic, I suddenly missed my work-outs. Lap-swimming on my own wasn’t enough. I gave Ron a call.

Ron and I have been training in his private storefront gym again, ever since. Until it will be time to say good-bye again.

Wait a Minute – I’m Supposed to Collaborate With YOU?

Confession.

 I frequently am a pretty bad collaborator. Sometimes, a downright horrible one.

I was reminded of this during a chat with my colleague Vera, VP of HR for a global manufacturing enterprise.

I love to collaborate with you if I respect you and your skills, I confess to Vera. If I don’t, all my worst instincts come to the fore.

I know, Vera says with a sigh. Collaborating with a bunch of A-team players can be exhilarating. Most of the time collaboration feels like a complex and never-ending slog to an outcome you don’t love, and you wish you had just done it by yourself.

Another sigh. It felt good to own it.

Collaboration is one of our workplace sacred cows. We’re all expected to embrace it as a rollicking good practice. The challenge, says Francesca Gino, a professor at Harvard Business School, is this: Leaders who want to create collaborative workplace cultures try hard to instill collaboration as a value. What they forget is that collaboration requires good old-fashioned skills. More importantly, subtle and highly nuanced skills. The sort of skills that we hone through a commitment to life-long learning.

If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” 

African proverb

I think of a compelling article by Gino in a pre-pandemic issue of The Harvard Business Review: “Cracking the Code of Sustained Collaboration” (HBR, November/December 2019). Gino highlights the work of companies such as Pixar, Webasto and American Express who actively invest in collaboration-skills training.

When I look at the list of 6 skill sets that Gino identifies, my first thought is yeah, I know these. Upon reflection, I remember how “not easy” they are – and how quickly they can fly out the window when we collaborate with someone who we do not deem a great collaboration partner.

Here are Gino’s top 6 collaboration skills:

1. Teach people to listen, not talk.

But of course, you may say to yourself, I have taken an active listening class. Well, here are some very specific ways of practicing a higher-level of listening, especially when the conversation may not be flowing with ease:

2. Train people to practice empathy.

When I was trained as a mediator at the Brooklyn Courts, one of the most potent techniques I learned was the “Shoe Swap.” Instead of rebutting what a speaker says, I intentionally pause, put myself in the other person’s shoe, for just a moment, to sincerely seek to understand why s/he thinks or feels the way s/he does. Hard to do. And powerful stuff. It invariably changes any conversation.

3. Make people more comfortable with feedback.

Because so many of us have received vague, platitudinous or at times personally hurtful feedback, it is easy to shy away from giving honest and actionable feedback to others. Or we may, intentionally or not, signal that we don’t wish to receive feedback ourselves and just want to get on with things.

How do we begin to move into a more effective feedback environment that prevents collaborative endeavors from getting stuck? Have the courage to openly talk about aversions to feedback, choose to practice frequent feedback that is direct, specific, and actionable – and give each other feedback about the quality of feedback that is or isn’t happening. Stay feedback-conscious!

4. Teach people to lead AND follow.

I have taught these skills for years. Some folks call it switching from Advocacy to Inquiry. I like energy language and think of it as knowing when to Push and when to Pull. Great collaborators are comfortable with both pushing and pulling. They have a keen sense of when to use one approach over the other. And they do so with clear purpose. Makes sense, right? The key success factor: Be comfortable with both communication styles AND use them with strategic intent.

5. Speak with clarity and avoid abstractions.

Know when brainstorming is over. Know when abstraction, more big ideas and additional data will not move you closer to action or making progress. Know when it is time to get specific. Know when it is time to condense what you need to say into 3 or 4 sentences. Know when it is time to call for action. And have the courage to do it. You will elevate the collaborative discourse for everyone involved.

6. Train people to have win-win interactions.

Sounds good, right? You may even have studied the terrific Harvard Negotiation model that teaches tools for getting to win-win. In reality, this is never easy. If I had to boil a win-win mindset down to 2 simple tactics, it would be these:

Chances are, you and your colleagues have already studied some of these skills. Chances are you, like me, think these skills are a fine idea. Good. Continue to train these skills. Continue to hone these skills. Stay mindful of them in every professional collaboration.

Each of these skills works powerfully in any social situation, as well. If you are at all social, you will be in the midst of non-stop practice opportunities.

Collaboration truly is a life-long learning skill. So keep practicing. Keep learning. And why not do it with joy?

Connecting With the Transactional Alpha Exec

You dread your meetings with Joe.

Joe’s 100% transactional. All business, all the time. You feel rushed when you speak with Joe. And you don’t know how to stop the alpha-train.

Worse yet, you’re a person who values relationships. You know that everything in business works better when you have built a rich relationship with a colleague. A reciprocal business relationship energizes you.

Nothing about Joe indicates that a relationship matters to him. With you, or with anyone else. He just wants to “get it done.”

Ouch.

I found myself thinking of this challenge last week when I was delivering a Master Class on Influencing Skills. Building authentic and sustained business relationships, I trust this intrinsically makes sense, is a key influence lever. More influential folks are more adept at developing key stakeholder relationships.

How do you build a relationship, I was asked, with someone who is not interested in relating?

If only you could sense how important you are to the lives of those you meet. There is something of yourself that you leave at every meeting with another person.”

Fred Rogers

It’s a tough challenge. We tend to talk about hitting this wall in terms of better understanding personality differences or adapting our communication styles. This, however, is a more fundamental dilemma. How do we connect with someone who does not seem to value connection?

Let’s begin here:

  • Don’t try to stop the alpha train.
  • Accept that you will not have a great relationship with everyone.
  • Learn to love what is.
  • Focus on Joe’s assets, not his liabilities.
  • And – drum roll, please – do not give up on the possibility of connecting. Because psychological evidence shows, over and over again, that no matter the personality type, no matter how “closed” a person may seem, the longing to connect runs deep. Connection is why we’re here, Carl Jung wrote. It is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.

Consider the following tips as you engage with a highly transactional alpha executive. Think of them as your “disarm them” tool kit.

4 Ways To Disarm a Transactional Executive

Meet them where they are.

Don’t force the small talk. Don’t chatter about what you and your family did over the weekend. Don’t ask her or him what they love to watch on Netflix. Let go of your preferred way of connecting, just for the moment. Make peace with transactional, because transactional is just fine.

Reframe transactional, for yourself. Transactional need not be cold, formal, unpleasant, or difficult. Transactional is focused on completing a transaction. And completing a transaction, beyond the human connection lens, can be mighty satisfying. So, relax please.

Connect around the present moment.

Instead of bringing extraneous stories into a conversation, notice what’s happening in the present moment. If there’s a thunderstorm brewing outside of your window, mention that. If there is a vacation photo on your conversation partner’s desk, inquire about that. If there is a beautiful painting on the wall behind your colleague, acknowledge it. These are simple and safe ways to initiate a human moment that is not forced. And your prompts may invite the other person to share more.

Gina, a Corporate Comptroller, described one such moment to me. I was on a Zoom call with my international team. Some of them I have never met in person. Archie from the UK was wearing a sweater that had this goofy design on it. I was chuckling to myself, inside, as I noticed Archie’s sweater. I wasn’t sure if I should comment on the sweater or say something cute.

If Archie wears a goofy sweater, Archie wants you to notice the sweater. It’s almost rude to not acknowledge the sweater. The sweater is literally staring you in the face. It is present-moment-reality. And acknowledging the sweater may well prompt a fun story or two.

Connect around work history.

If you sense that a colleague does not wish to get into “personal stuff,” go deeper with the business content. When you are trying to solve a problem or need to make a decision, open the door to the past. How have you tackled this in the past? What was the biggest challenge you faced last time this happened? What did you learn in previous times that we should consider today?

Questions about past experience are safe. They explicitly acknowledge the other person’s experience and expertise. They will always expand a conversation and may elicit an unexpected story or insight. All wins.

Celebrate them.

Successful people rarely receive enough compliments. Here’s one thing I hear in my Executive Coaching practice all the time when we talk about paying a compliment. It always startles me. Well, I don’t want to sound like I’m sucking up to her.

Please be clear – this is your crap about giving and receiving compliments. Drop it. If you find yourself in a fast-moving transactional conversation and the other individual says something genuinely helpful or insightful, please acknowledge it. That was so helpful, Joe. I never looked at it this way before, Joe. Thank you for helping me look at this situation differently, Joe. I appreciate how you analyze a difficult situation, Joe.

Don’t say it if you don’t mean it. If you mean it, DO say it. Your comment may well open the door to a much richer conversation than you thought was possible.

Sometimes our light blows out, the theologian and philosopher Albert Schweitzer famously said, but is blown again into instant flame by the encounter with another person.

Think of the possibility of connection as one of those instant flames. Respect the other person’s conversational limits and personal boundaries. Do not force yourself on her and him. And, at the same time, remember that the simplest statement from you has the power to ignite the flame.

Stay in the moment. And light the match.

Why Zoom Beats Meeting In-Person. Nearly Every Time.

It’s that betwixt and between time.

Back in the brick-and-mortar office again. Well, on occasion. Business traveling again, in little baby steps.

The race back to normal has begun. Or more correctly perhaps, hybrid life.

I hear it all the time. I miss my social connections in the office. The spontaneous chats. I miss seeing your body language. All of you. The social glue that holds us all together in community.

I get it.

Allow me to be a contrarian, certainly when it comes to this. Virtual meetings are better than in-person meetings. Hands down. More efficient. More effective. More productive.

Pretty much all the time.

If we do ‘em right.

I scheduled this meeting to discuss the scheduling of next week’s meetings."

Anonymous

My research suggests, writes Steven G. Rogelberg in an article titled “The Surprise Science Behind Successful Remote Meetings” (MIT Sloan Management Review/05/21/20, that only 50% of meeting time is effective, well-used, and engaging – and these effectiveness numbers drop even lower when it comes to remote meetings.

Yikes. Rogelberg, the Chancellor’s Professor at the University of North Carolina Charlotte for distinguished national, international, and interdisciplinary contributions, offers a host of common-sense suggestions in his article for hosting a successful remote meeting. The most compelling one, by far, is simply this: FACILITATE.

Facilitate your virtual meeting well. Facilitate the heck out of it.

Really lead.

The beauty of virtual technology is that it gives us the tools to facilitate more boldly than we ever do in a face-to-face meeting.

Here’s why a well-facilitated virtual meeting bests a run-of the-mill in-person meeting, anytime, anywhere. My platform-of-choice is Zoom, so I will be making Zoom references here – but comparable organizing functions exist on most other virtual meeting platforms.

4 Keys to Superior Virtual Meeting Facilitation

Exceptional Brainstorming

You know loud-mouth-itis, right? In a standard in-person meeting, a bunch of people sit around a big, long table. The formal leader asks a question to the entire group. 3 or 4 individuals jump in and run with the conversation. The loud mouths.

A skilled leader will seek to draw in others, of course. Let’s look at this same moment in a well-facilitated virtual meeting: The leader asks the same question of the group. Instead of entertaining individual responses, a blank board is up on the screen. Group members are prompted to use the annotation function and populate the board with their answers or suggestions. At rapid speed, every member has the chance to jump in. Any comment is instantly visible. No one has taken over. Everyone’s opportunity is the same.

The process is fast. And because participation is visible on the screen, there is palpable peer pressure to jump in. Pressure on everyone.

Efficient. Quick. Even when we do a traditional in-person brainstorm with flip-chart writing, it is more cumbersome and takes way longer. In an annotated Zoom-brainstorm, we get an idea-energy-burst. Instant. Powerful. The structure does the trick.

Instant pulse check

I used to think virtual polls were kinda cheesy. A quick participation gimmick – you know, to show how interactive a virtual platform can be. Well, interactive it is. Engage it does. But a poll accomplishes so much more. It invites a deeper reflection on a given topic. It forces prioritization. It really does offer instant feedback on how a group of people thinks about aspects of a topic. And it allows everyone in the group to get a sense of what others are thinking and feeling, as well.

It does all this with ridiculous efficiency. In a minute or two, a poll outcome has the power to redefine the direction of a meeting. Could we do this in an in-person meeting, as well? Sure – but we don’t. We rely, instead, on babbling on.

Breakout Power

The structure of a traditional meeting is numbingly predictable. One group, one leader, one agenda, all seated around the same table. The pretext is that this structure gets us all “on the same page.” Reality is that members of the group frequently check out and don’t get heard.

This is the beauty of a Breakout Group: More members of the group get to talk. Because more get to talk, the conversation goes deeper, faster. Detours are less likely, potential derailment is managed more effectively. Conversations invariably become more robust. And because the groups are smaller, it may feel safer for a member to say something s/he might not feel safe saying in front of the entire group.

Can we do Breakouts in an in-person meeting? Sure. The beauty of a Zoom Breakout is that it happens with the click of a button. And because we’re suddenly in a private room, privacy is assured. Do a Breakout within an in-person boardroom setting, and we’re distracted by the chatter of the other groups. Do an in-person Breakout by actually sending folks to different rooms, time is wasted in the process and distraction encouraged. Zoom Breakouts have a power and efficiency an in-person meeting will never match.

Divide and Conquer

In a traditional Breakout, members of a group take the same agenda item and discuss it in small groups. Take it a level further: If you, let’s say, have 3 agenda items, take your meeting into 3 Breakouts. Each Breakout investigates a different agenda item. You have just broken up the hegemony of the “big group.” You’re accelerating conversation because 3 agenda items are being discussed, at the same time, in different groups.

When our 3 Breakouts come back together and share their findings, suggestions and ideas, we’re more likely to be curious and riveted. Because we had a different conversation. In the act of different Breakouts reporting back, more voices fill the conversational space. More voices “own” the conversation. Way more thoughts are shared. How powerful is that!

Organizational tip:  

To properly facilitate a virtual meeting, have a Producer with you. A Producer handles the technical aspects of the meeting, follows the chat function, manages a poll, keeps all of this on track for you. This is the grown-up way to lead a virtual meeting. You simply facilitate.

You may think, yes, I get all of this, but I still miss the intimacy of seeing my colleagues in-person. Guess what - virtual meetings are, in so many ways, more intimate than an in-person event. Gather in-person, and yes, we get the seductions of the spontaneous chit chat and the social banter. Surface intimacy, comfort food for the soul.

In a virtual forum, I actually get real intimacy. The close-up on your face. The ability to split into private chats. Yup, intimate.

Let us not wax overly nostalgic about the joys of meeting in-person. Many of my colleagues who yearn for the olden days of an in-person meeting are very same who used to complain about how much they hated “those” meetings.

The hard truth is, says Patrick Lencioni, author the classic book “The 5 Dysfunctions of a Team,” bad meetings almost always lead to bad decisions, which is the best recipe for mediocrity.

Want better meetings? Less mediocrity? Fewer bad decisions? Make the power of virtual meetings your friend.

Facilitate well.

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We Are Wired To Help. Help Well!

We all like to help.

Is that true? In a world full of narcissists and self-promoters – and you may have a few of those at your place of work - is this ACTUALLY true? Or is it just one of those feel-good clichés?

Here’s a study that got me thinking about this. In her Wall Street Journal “Mind and Matter” column, Susan Pinker describes research conducted by Rodolfo Cortes Barragan, a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Washington (WSJ, 3/7/2020). Barragan tested 96 toddlers to see how likely they might be to help a needy stranger. Yes – those impatient 2-year-olds who are inclined to kick, scream, and bite if they don’t get what they want!

Research Set-Up: Each child met an adult who was sitting behind a desk. The desk was gated, and the toddler stayed on the other side of the gate with a parent nearby, to ensure the child would not feel threatened. The adult behind the desk selected a piece of freshly cut fruit which then suddenly slipped out of his hand and landed on a tray on the child’s side of the desk.

The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others."

Albert Schweitzer

2 Control Groups: In each control group, the adults reacted very differently to the loss of the fruit. The adult in the first group acted dismayed at the loss of the fruit, grasped the air unsuccessfully to get at the fruit, and displayed his desire to get the fruit back. The adult in the second group acted nonchalantly after the loss of the fruit.

The Outcome. When faced with an adult who was clearly yearning to get the fruit back, 60% of the toddlers retrieved the fruit and promptly offered it to the adult. With the adult who did not seem to yearn for the fruit, only 4% did the same.

The desire to help runs deep. It’s near primal. Even toddlers are wired to help.

Think, for a moment, about less extraordinary circumstances. Think of your own everyday behaviors at work. How strong is YOUR toddler instinct to help? What are some ways in which you can be of help, every single day, beyond what your job requires you to do? And, conversely, what might be some helping instincts that may actually NOT be helpful?

Offer to help.

We ask if there’s anything we can do to help. We don’t impose help. We don’t force help. We merely indicate that we are willing and available.

Helping at work does NOT mean I do your job for you. Does not mean I help for my own hidden EGO gratification. Doesn’t mean I enable you to stay less competent than you need to be. It doesn’t mean I rescue you. When you accept my offer to help, I do a quick inner context-check to ensure that my help will truly be a help.

Connect Me with a Helper.

One of the most potent ways of helping others is to connect them with someone else who might be able to help. When a colleague struggles with solving a problem and you know a colleague who has solved a similar problem in the past, offer to connect her with that colleague.

When a colleague might benefit from a conversation with an expert outside of your company and you know just such an expert, offer to introduce him to this expert. Join communities such as professional organizations or Mastermind Groups that are predicated on the notion of help. Being in a community of help is an exponential success accelerator for everyone involved.

Making an introduction is quick. It’s simple. There is no other agenda but the desire to be of help. And it strengthens the relationships of every party involved in the introduction. Triple win.

Be an ally.

A good half of my clients in Executive roles are at times accused of not speaking up enough in Senior Leadership meetings. When we probe a little more deeply, these are the sort of comments I tend to hear: Well, someone already said what I was going to say. I don’t want to be redundant. I don’t want to take up unnecessary air time.

Someone has already made the point you wished to make? Terrific. Speak up and let the group know that you agree with what was just said. Support that individual’s point-of-view. Be an ally. An ally is one of the most influential roles we can play in any situation. And it’s a powerful way of being of help. Bingo.

Ask for help.

If the need to offer help is primal – even if subverted in a few folks we know – the willingness to ask for help is sublimated in even more of us. We may feel that asking for help at work is a sign of weakness. It may show that we are less skilled, less certain than we pretend to be. It may tap into the part of us that feels a little like an impostor.

Got it. Consider this, however: When I ask you for help, I tap deeply into the part of you that wants to help others. I allow you a chance to act on your innermost instincts. Toddler, anyone? How selfish it would be to deprive you of the opportunity to be of help to me. I mean, really!

I love the phrase “word of mouth.” Every business owner knows that all the marketing in the world will never eclipse the power of “word of mouth.”

I help you, the receiver, with the “word-of-mouth” information I share with you. I help the person whose information I share. And we, invariably, help ourselves in the act of helping. That’s the power of “word-of-mouth.”

So, help freely. Be a word-of-mouther. Wins all around.

5 Ways To Align Around Change We Don’t Like

You didn’t see it coming. The sudden restructuring at work. The sale of an entire business unit. The firing of a beloved leader.

You think you’re cool with change. Or so you tell yourself. This isn’t your first time at the rodeo. Yup, been there, done that.

Your first reaction is This sucksBig time. And it’s not just a thought. You get this steady pinch in the pit of your stomach. Your chest and shoulders feel tight and tense. Headaches at night. 

It doesn’t feel good.

Yes, you believe in continuous improvement. Seeking efficiencies. Consolidating resources. Merging business functions. Eliminating others. You have said you’re all for it.

But it doesn’t feel good.

Change is not a four-letter-word … but often your reaction to it is."

Jeffrey Gitomer

This is the time when many of your colleagues start sending out resumes. Fine strategy, even when you don’t wish to leave. It creates options. Removes the sense of being stuck.

But you don’t actually wish to go somewhere else. There is too much you love about where you work, major changes and all. So how do we align ourselves around a change that we simply don’t like?

Think of the following 5 steps as your inner homework when a major change storm makes landfall at your place of work.

1. Let it rip.

Get real about how you really feel about the change that’s happening. Don’t try to be all cool about it. Don’t try to hold it all together. If you’re pissed, be truly pissed. If you’re disappointed because your dream of what you thought this company was has just been killed, wallow in that disappointment. Feel it fully. Go there.

Yes, let it rip. Preferably in a safe place outside of work. When we constantly pretend to be more OK with something than we actually are, our emotions fester. Energy gets blocked. We exist in a state of ever-simmering resentment. We don’t move forward. Emotions need to move. Staying resentful isn’t pretty. Let it rip.

2. Don’t make it all about you.

Shift your thinking from how a change impacts YOU to WHY the organization needs the change. Major organizational changes, even when they are painful, happen for a reason. They are usually intended to create a more robust and competitive business. They may not be “good” for what you do every day at work - yet they may be exactly what the business needs to move forward.

Shift out of how-this-impacts-me-and-my-team thinking into this-is-why-the-business-needs-this thinking. Not easy, I understand. But when coupled with a clean execution of Step #1 – powerful and freeing.

3. Let go of attachments.

Many of us like routines - even as we’re busy complaining about them. I often marvel at my clients who leave a firm because they don’t like the business practices where they are, only to immediately re-create the same practices in their new job. Such is the power of attachment to what we know.

Don’t be one of those employees who clings to how good it was in the good old days. Your attachment to the good old days gets you nowhere. It’s an attachment to rituals, habits, processes. There will be new ones. There’s more than one way of doing most anything. When we compare a new process to an old one, our attachment to the old way invariably sets the new up to fail. Stop glorifying the old. It’s the only way we ever move forward with a measure of grace.

4. Take yourself a little less seriously.

Our mind will whip our initial reactions to change into a frenzy if we allow it. We obsessively think the same dark thoughts, over and over. We latch onto doom-and-gloom thinking. We project ahead to a future filled with insurmountable challenges created by this change.

None of these challenges are real. The future has not yet come - and we are already placing ourselves at the center of this impending doom. Victims of a change not of our making. Martyrs who have to make this odious new stuff work.

Take a walk. Do some fun things. Clear your mind. Shrug off the worry-thoughts, tell them to also take a hike. Smell some fresh air, literally and metaphorically. We are responsible for our perspective shifts. They tend to not happen by thinking harder, they happen when we think less.

5. Shift into a helping mindset.

Resisting the new is exhausting. It feeds on itself. The more we resist, the more we drain mind, body, soul, spirit. The spiral descends downward at lightning speed. Choose to be a helper instead. It is invariably the most potent mental frame for showing up at work. It’s a choice that is always available to us. This choice becomes even more compelling when we’re in the midst of a major change. A desire to help, in small and big ways, gets us to the state where the change begins to feel good. That’s a fine destination.

When a change feels intolerable, when a workplace becomes toxic – by all means, leave. But when you choose to stay, do your inner homework. The 5 steps outlined above are your guide. Feel. Feel quickly. And then shift out of resistance.

Do not procrastinate when it comes to doing this homework. In the end you, and only you, are the one who pays the price.

Don’t. Align instead.

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