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Staying Connected: Making The Beast Beautiful

Learn the alchemy
True human beings know.
The moment you accept
what troubles you’ve been given,
the door will open.
-Rumi
Some people break during difficult times, while others break open and lead us into a better world. As this pandemic wears on, it is time to examine how to allow the pain of it to break us open so a stronger, wiser and kinder self can emerge. If we can use the present reality as an opportunity to clarify our values and grow into better people, we can inspire others to pull out of their despair and fear and trade distraction and denial for deepening and connecting.
In other words, if we can open our hearts to ourselves, with all our shortcomings and all of our beauty, we can then open our hearts to others and do our part to create a new world.
And we can begin to do that by taking the authentic journey, which I suggest starts with the following:
Be Real
There’s something attractive about realness. We are drawn toward what is real, like sunsets, beauty, and honesty. There’s an unwritten rule in the speaking profession: Don’t give a motivational speech at a funeral. It might be a good message but the timing sucks.
Being real means we respect ourselves enough to be honest with ourselves and the people that matter to us. We have to be willing to face our fears honestly before we can call ourselves courageous. And the most courageous thing we can do is ask for help.
Being real means it’s okay to not be okay, and trust that we’ll get through this and move forward together – with honesty, grace, and compassion. We have to grieve before we build.
Find a champion
An inspiring cornerstone of the Calgary Catholic School District is the commitment to every student having a champion. Every child deserves a one-on-one relationship with an adult in the school who believes in them unconditionally, who knows they have their back, and who is in their corner. In order to ensure that every child has a champion, every employee must have a champion.
The journey of transforming difficulty into an adventure that opens us to growth may be a lonely journey, but it can’t be done alone. The lone-warrior model of leadership is heroic suicide. We all need champions in our lives – confidants that hold space for us while we hold the space for others and allies that stand beside us and behind us. We all need at least one person in our life who believes in us when we can’t find it in ourselves.
Choose a growth mindset
Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychology professor, has done extensive research on mindset.  She has found that our mindset exists on a continuum, from fixed to mixed to growth.
People with a fixed mindset are attached to the comfort of their current perception of themselves and others and to not failing. People with a growth mindset, on the other hand, don’t let their fears determine their choices. They are less attached to the opinion of others and thus are more willing to step into the possibility that comes from uncertainty. A growth mindset – a willingness to be vulnerable, learn, grow, and be up for challenges that are ahead – thrives in periods like the pandemic. When difficulty or obstacles arise, instead of, “Why is this happening to me?” a growth mindset asks, “How is this happening for me?”
Get stronger
After recovering from polio meningitis when I was four, my father took painstaking efforts to incrementally build my strength each day. He would lift me up on the parallel bars and have me practice holding myself there. We had a daily routine of 5BX exercises and time on the tumbling mat. He was a nationally ranked gymnast and he encouraged me every day to get stronger.
Even today, forty years after his passing, I can hear him say, “Don’t pray for life to get easier. Pray for you to get stronger.” Both his wisdom as well as his health habits have stayed with me through all kinds of difficult periods in my life. It’s a reminder that resilience and security don’t come from the world; they come from my capacity to access resources from within. Strengthening habits – like weight training, meditation, yoga, relaxation, rest and opening up to others – have sustained me through all the difficult times of my life.
Clarify A Compelling Vision
A friend of mine works for an organization called AAWEAR, a group of people in Alberta with a history of hard drug use. Through supporting each other, educating others, and raising awareness of health issues, AAWEAR strives for an improved quality of life for those in the drug using community.
My friend meets daily with people who live in tents and on sidewalks in the city of Edmonton. His vision is to help those who struggle with drug abuse and homelessness recognize that they deserve respect and understanding within their community. No matter how dark things get around him, Tyler is inspired by a vision to help others live a better life.
What inspires you in the difficult times? What gets you up early? What keeps you up late? What inspires you to keep walking through the rough terrains of your life to see you through to the other side? We all need a vision – beyond our own self-interest – to keep us moving forward through inevitable doldrums and disillusionments of life’s journey.
We all have the capacity to inspire and empower others. But it takes a devotion to our personal growth and development to embrace times of change and difficulty, such as this pandemic, and reach within so a better person can emerge. Hard times can motivate us to embody the hero within us. The psychologist, Carl Jung, believed that “the privilege of a lifetime is to become who you truly are.” This journey is described in my book, The Other Everest: Navigating the Pathway to Authentic Leadership, and the journey we go through in our Life In Transitions course. It is the journey to the deeper aspects of our nature that awaken us to who we are meant to be. And that is how we can use this beast of a pandemic to find what is beautiful in ourselves and the world around us.

HOW TO BUILD COMMUNITY IN A TIME OF ISOLATION

A research project from the 1980s, documented in the New England Journal of Medicine, showed that male heart attack survivors who were socially isolated had more than four times the risk of death than men with strong social connections. And a study of more than four thousand men of Japanese ancestry living in Hawaii found that social networks guarded against coronary artery disease (independent of known health hazards such as high blood pressure and cigarette smoking).
Over the past four decades, there has been a sizable body of evidence documenting that being socially isolated significantly increases a person’s risk of premature death from all causes, a risk equal to that of smoking, obesity, and physical inactivity.
Simply put, people are nourished by other people. Research suggests that belonging to a tightly knit community is a significant predictor of health and mental well-being. Living beings yearn for the proximity of other living beings. Humans are happiest and healthiest when around other people, working together and helping each other. For much of history, humans have banded together as a matter of survival.
Even with pandemic fatigue, where we are weary of social distancing and isolating for the sake of our community’s health, our need for community has not changed – we desire to be heard, to be connected, to belong. Social distancing is not the same as social disconnecting. Isolating is not the same as detaching. Working together for the good of the whole is not the same as living in fear and withdrawing from each other. In our current conditions, we are called to develop a renewed connection to ourselves, to learn to enjoy solitude, to appreciate smaller spaces, and to be creative and intentional about sustaining our relationships with each other – thus finding innovative ways of sustaining community.
Living with a propensity for depression and having walked through some very dark periods in the course of my lifetime, I can suggest five strategies for fostering community during this pandemic that have worked for me:
1) Develop self-awareness. When a Stanford Graduate School of Business Advisory Council was asked to recommend the most important capability for leaders to develop, their answer was almost unanimous: self-awareness. But how do you develop self-awareness? Self-awareness starts with checking in on yourself in the present moment. Are you afraid? Stressed? Inspired? Exhausted? Angry? Renewed? All of the above? Self-awareness comes from introspection and feedback from others. It takes time and intention but is a journey worth taking. You can only connect with others to the degree you connect with yourself.
2) Find a confidant. A confidant is a person with whom you can be real and honest. Confidants provide a space for those who are busy holding a space for everybody else. At this point in the pandemic, as fatigue is settling in for so many of us, we all need at least one confidant who can put us back together at the end of the day. Confidants are friends, spouses, coaches, lovers, or trusted colleagues that provide support, perspective, and accountability in the midst of our frustrations and challenges.
3) Practice kindness wherever you go. We are all doing the best we can to get through these challenging times. Let’s make it a point to grant each other a little grace. Even while wearing a mask we can smile with our eyes, offer encouragement with a hand gesture, and practice patience with our tone of voice. We’ve never been more alone, but we have also never been more together, sharing this experience with eight billion people on this planet. Community is developed one kind act at a time.
4) Find a reason to get out of bed in the morning. In a world preoccupied with problems, community is about discovering our gifts and finding ways to bring them into focus. Community is ultimately about being needed, belonging to something beyond yourself, being inspired with a reason to face the day. It is the task of leaders, indeed the task of every citizen, to shine a light on the gifts of those in the periphery and bring them into the centre. Especially in the midst of a pandemic, we need to find a reason to put our feet on the floor each morning.
5) Get comfortable being alone. Loneliness and being alone are distinct. A desire for solitude is a defining characteristic of an authentic person. A quest for community can be one more form of manic activity if it is not rooted in a continual practice of silence and time for reflection. If you work on creating a balance between reaching out to others and enjoying what the Finns call hiljaisuus, or solitude in one’s being, you’ll strengthen your sense of self-worth and find more meaning in your life.
Our intention, in our upcoming Authentic Leadership Masterclass is to do our part to help build communities with like-minded authentic difference makers. While we show how authentic leadership presence can be applied to the leadership practices of fostering trust, building accountability, navigating change, and engaging talent, a major part of the program is to connect leaders with each other to sustain their growth, connections, and sense of community. We work with accountability partners between sessions to support each other’s growth, help each other stay on track, and sustain the insights you glean from the class experience.
We still have a few seats available for our January and February programs for those of you committed to renewed leadership development this year in a community of incredible like-minded difference makers. I hope you will join us.
To mark the passage into the promise and hope for a safe and prosperous new year, I want to borrow from history and visualize an ancient and meaningful ritual. For 2,500 years, the Japanese have been making and drinking sake, a type of rice wine brewed from fermented rice. Throughout all that time, sake has been used to mark special occasions with the people that matter most. In most celebrations involving sake, a glass is placed inside a masu cup and the host pours sake until it overflows like a waterfall. The overflowing is an act of kindness and generosity to show appreciation for the people around them. It also works as a little act of celebration, to lift the spirits and to enjoy the present state of life. Watching the sake overflow and not knowing whether it will tip over presents a beautiful moment of suspense, when time seems to slow down. By introducing a moment of suspense, the ceremony keeps your mind in the present moment, focused only on the beautiful waterfall of sake.
As a message of appreciation to all my readers over the years, I’m taking the liberty to borrow from this little Japanese ritual and overflow some sake with you. My hope is that the image of this overflow will remind us all to bring presence and generosity into this new year. May we all experience the overflow of kindness through our actions as we build community together and navigate into 2021.

MOVING FORWARD TOGETHER What Prisoners of War Can Teach Us About Getting Through The Pandemic

“Freedom has a taste to it to those who fight and almost die that the protected will never know.” – Written on a prison wall by a captive in Vietnam

I heard once that the purpose of a crisis is not to break us as much as it is to break us open. As Remembrance Day approaches in Canada, I felt it important to honour our veterans and find strength from their courage. May we use this pandemic as an opportunity to open our hearts and examine our lives more deeply as we find the courage to keep walking with compassion and authenticity.

What has given me strength and inspiration through this pandemic is to compare our current reality to the lives of people who had it much worse than what we are experiencing now. With Remembrance Day upon us, I have been reading about the experiences of POWs and the horrors many experienced. It is impossible to imagine the unfathomable atrocities and man’s inhumanity to man throughout the two World Wars and the numerous wars since. We’ve heard of months of solitary confinement, suffocating heat, freezing cold, grueling physical and psychological torture, humiliation, slave labour, constant hunger, disease, and unimaginable mental duress the POW’s endured. And yet, time and again, darkness could not overcome the light that helped so many of the sick and scarred to the other side.
In honour of our veterans this month I offer three lessons that POWs can teach us about surviving – and thriving – in times of crisis. Lest we forget…
Stay Connected. One crucial means of survival in the camps was to form strong bonds with fellow prisoners. Having a small group of three to four mates was essential. Within these small pods they shared food and workload and nursed each other when they were sick. British RAF aircraftsman Derek Fogarty, a Japanese POW, recalled in a 2008 interview: “You bonded like a brother. If a person was sick you took them water, you did their washing. We were so close, and got closer and closer over the years; people would die for their mates; that’s how close things got.” Without their mates, many more prisoners would have died. Captain David Arkush remembered how “everybody had dysentery. They lay in their own excrement. Unless they had a mucker, a pal, to look after them, they stood little chance of survival.”
Even when confronted with solitary confinement, POWs depended on secret communication with their fellow captives to relay vital information, and to keep up morale. It was said that POWs in a German camp in World War II communicated between buildings undetected by tapping a secret code on a common water pipe.
We may not need a lot of people, but we need a strong band of allies.
Get Stronger. POWs who were able to survive their ordeals found a way to be with the torment by keeping themselves strong – mentally, physically, and spiritually. Rather than expecting the hardship to diminish (which they couldn’t control), they worked at getting stronger to counter it. To quote American author, Van Jones, “I don’t want you to be safe, ideologically. I don’t want you to be safe, emotionally. I want you to be strong. That’s different. I’m not going to pave the jungle for you. Put on some boots and learn how to deal with adversity. I’m not going to take all the weights out of the gym; that’s the whole point of the gym. This is the gym.”
For some POWs, strength came from the incredible encouragement they gave each other; for others, from their imagination – a vision for a better future; for others, faith that the trying times had a purpose and would make them stronger. For many, a positive attitude and humour were a key to survival. All of them had a disciplined way of keeping a strong mind. As former POW Captain Eugene McDaniel wrote, “All I had was tomorrow, and maybe that was the height of my confidence. Well then, I would make tomorrow count for something.”  For still others, honestly facing their fears and doubts gave them the strength to go on.
Admiral Jim Stockdale, who Jim Collins referred to in his classic book, Good To Great, was held captive in a prison camp in Vietnam for seven years. When asked how he did not allow his oppressive circumstances to beat him down, he talked about facing the honest truth of one’s situation. “You have to understand, it was never depressing. Because despite all those circumstances, I never ever wavered in my absolute faith that not only would I prevail – get out of this – but I would also prevail by turning it into the defining event of my life that would make me a stronger and better person…” He also commented on who didn’t make it out of those circumstances: “It was the optimists. They were the ones who always said, ‘We’re going to be out by Christmas.’ Christmas would come and it would go. And there would be another Christmas. And they died of a broken heart…. You must never, ever, ever confuse the need for absolute, unwavering faith that you can prevail despite those constraints, with the need for the discipline to begin by confronting the brutal facts, whatever they are. We’re not getting out of here by Christmas.”
Be Needed. It is a fundamental human need to know that we matter, that we make some kind of impact, to feel needed.Humans can carry a deep-seated fear that life is futile, that death will surprise us when our song is still unsung. Whether we are employed or unemployed, laid-off or retired, have a fulfilling career or a “dead-end-job,” we all need to know, deep inside, that the life we are living matters.
During WW II, across the camps, the POWs who stayed strong and vital pooled their skills and trades to help one another. Doctors, denied tools or medicine, needed the expertise of others. Medical orderly and former plumber, Fred Margarson, ran secret POW workshops at Chungkai hospital camp in Thailand where he supervised the making of artificial legs for tropical ulcer patients. His friend Gordon Vaughan, a Post Office engineer before the war, made vital medical instruments for examining dysentery patients from old tin cans, and surgical forceps from pairs of scissors. Those who stayed strong within the confines of the camps lived through giving of themselves. Comforting others. Giving away their last spoonful of rice. Putting others ahead of their own comfort.
Each one of us makes a difference. Each one of us is required. Look around you. See where you can help. Be needed.
Every single veteran—whether they are alive, no longer with us, a POW or MIA—deserves our utmost respect and support. May we never forget. May we continue to honour them. And may we continue to allow them to inspire us and teach us.

HOW TO RECOVER THE HUMAN ELEMENT

The students of a Hasidic rabbi approached their spiritual leader with a complaint about the prevalence of evil in the world. Intent upon driving out the forces of darkness, they requested the rabbi to counsel them. The rabbi suggested they take brooms and attempt to sweep the darkness from a cellar. The bewildered disciples applied themselves to sweeping out the darkness, but to no avail. The rabbi then advised them to take sticks and beat vigorously at the dark to drive out the evil. When this also failed, he counseled them to go down again in the cellar, and to protest violently against the darkness. When this failed too, he counseled his followers to meet the challenge of darkness by lighting a lamp.
Here are four ways, we, as authentic leaders, can light a lamp in the darkness of the incivility, inhumanity, and disconnection that we may be experiencing during these trying times:
1)    Be diligent about self-care so you can care for others. Self care isn’t always comfortable. On the farm growing up, we had no central heating. It was my job to stoke the potbelly stove to heat the house in the morning. It was a ritual before starting my day. Just as stoking the fire takes some effort, if we are going to be a strong source of light in the world, I find the first hour of the day to be critical for stoking that light. My ritual, in the first hour of my day, includes meditation, reading inspirational literature, and walking with the dogs. To keep my lamp strong throughout the day, I pay careful attention to what I eat, how much rest and exercise I get, and how I connect with my community. These aren’t just habits of the body; they are habits of the heart. Bringing a strong lamp into the world starts with being good to myself.
2)    Be real. Yesterday I received a call from a friend I hadn’t heard from in months. “How are you?” she asked. I responded with my usual upbeat spiel about how we are adjusting to the new reality, getting our material online, learning how to use zoom and present live-streaming events, etc.
After a couple of minutes she asked, “How are you, really? We’re on the phone, so we don’t need our masks.” After a pause we both became emotional.
“I don’t miss the traveling and the airports and the hotels… But I miss the connections. This has been one of the most challenging years I have ever faced. My business is based on being face-to-face with people and is built on hugs and handshakes; creating an environment for human connection. It’s what makes my business thrive. My strength is human touch, and I miss not being able to express this fully. We are, after all, social creatures. Even us introverts long for the symphony and the concerts and the hockey games.”
If you can’t be real you can’t stay connected.
3)    Be still – and smile. In Vietnam, when the boat people left the country in small boats, they were often caught in rough seas or storms, and if people panicked, boats would sink. But if even one person aboard remained calm, lucid, knowing what to do and what not to do, they could help the occupants survive. By communicating, through face and voice, clarity and calmness that comes from trust in ourselves and in the resources available to us, we earn trust from others. One such person can save the lives of many. I know it is hard to show you are smiling when you are wearing a mask. I learned from a great photographer once that you can smile with your eyes. Try it. It’s a great way to connect.
4)    Be clear, focused, and committed to human values. Most of the world functions under the belief that business and people are separate, that business is all about KPIs and numbers and financial results. They don’t have to be. You can drive the bottom line by integrating the human experience into business processes. This pandemic has created an opportunity for all of us to slow down, get our bearings, and examine more carefully and more deeply, how we are living and how we are leading. It’s a time for self-reflection and careful investigation of what we mean by success. Don’t confuse wealth with money or success with meaning. To paraphrase the words of the great Zig Ziglar, money will buy you a house, but not a home; a companion but not a friend; a bed but not a good night’s sleep. Money will buy you sustenance, but it won’t buy you substance; it will buy you clothes, but it won’t buy you class; it will buy you a car, but it won’t buy you character; it will buy you information, but it won’t buy you wisdom.
If these ideas resonate with you and you want to step away from the tyranny of the urgent, renew your perspective on life and leadership, and join a community of like-minded leaders, we are hosting a masterclass in authentic leadership practice where participants heighten their leadership capacity in ways that will powerfully impact their lives. https://ally-stone-9892.mindmint.com/irvinestone
It is an experience that takes you deeply into the work of authentic leadership and offers you sustaining principles, insights, and practical tools for inspiring trust, engaging talent, embracing change, and ensuring accountability. Are you ready to take the journey? I hope you will join us for this exciting adventure.

RESPONDING TO OUR TIMES: Lessons From Nelson Mandela

For many years the life and leadership of Nelson Mandela has inspired and guided my work. Mandela had many teachers in his life, but the greatest of them all was prison. In the words of his biographer, Richard Stengel, “Prison taught him self-control, discipline, and focus, and it taught him how to be a full human being – the things he considered essential to leadership.” In other words, it was the solitude, degradation, devastation and inhumanity of that time in confinement that made him who he became. It was his journey away from the world that allowed him to lead in the world. Prison was, what we describe in our work as his journey to the “Other Everest,” a voyage that took him inward and downward toward the hardest realities of his life.
His years at Robben Island can be instructive for us through this pandemic. Here are three of the lessons:
1.     Let life mature you, not embitter you. When asked how prison changed him, Mandala said, “I came out mature.” He explained that maturity didn’t mean that the sensitive, emotional young man went away. Maturity didn’t mean that he was no longer stung or hurt or angry, but he learned to control what he described as his more “youthful impulses.”
Maturity, in Mandela’s world, was the courage to work through the bitterness and anger from the solitude, disgrace, and inhumanity of being unjustly imprisoned for twenty-seven years, and come out the other side with honest forgiveness. Maturity is about choosing personal responsibility instead of blame, transforming entitlement into ownership, contempt into civility, and self-interest into service. As my mother would say, maturity is the ability to do a job whether or not you are supervised, finish a job once you start it, carry money without spending it, and being able to bear an injustice without wanting to get even. With maturity comes courage, which is not, in the words of Mandela, an absence of fear, but rather the willingness to act in the face of it. It’s also about poise under pressure. Maturity doesn’t come with age. It comes with the acceptance of responsibility.
2.     See the good in others. Some call it a blind spot, others naîveté, but Mandela saw almost everyone as virtuous until proven otherwise. According to Richard Stengel, he started with the assumption you were dealing with people in good faith. Just as pretending to be brave can lead to acts of real bravery, Mandela believed that just seeing the good in other people improved the chances that they would reveal their better selves.
It’s an extraordinary quality of a person to be ill-treated for most of their life and still see the good in others. In fact, “he almost never had a bad word to say about anyone. He would not even say a disapproving word about the man who tried to have him hanged.” It wasn’t, it turned out, that he didn’t see the dark side of evil people, but that he was unwilling to see only that. He chose to look past the negative aspects of a person and see their strengths. Apparently, he did this for two reasons: because he instinctively saw the good in people and because he intellectually believed that seeing the good in others might actually make them better. “If you expect more of people, whether they are coworkers or family members, they often contribute more. Or at least feel guilty if they don’t.”
This belief was at the heart of Mandela’s approach to life. He believed that cruel and evil men were better men than their behaviour, and that their motives were not as cruel as their actions. In his biography, Mandela wrote, “No one is born prejudiced or racist. No man is evil at heart. Evil is something instilled in or taught to men by circumstances, their environment, or their upbringing.”
3.     Have a core principle. Nelson Mandela was a man of principle, and that true north principle gave him stability, clarity, and focus amid the turmoil and abuse of his circumstances. It inspired him to keep going in the midst of utter darkness around him. The principle that formed the framework for his actions and leadership was: Equal rights for all, regardless of race, class, or gender.
While on Robben Island, Mandala read the books about iconic leaders. He studied the habits of the great souls. He reflected on key moral virtues. By being principle-centered, he, over the years, transmuted hostility into opportunity, bitterness into forgiveness, and created a vision for social change. Mandela believed a transformational leader does not talk about polls or votes or tactics or popularity. A transformational leader talks about principles and ideals.
What principles do you stand for? What ideals guide and inspire your life and your leadership? If we don’t stand for something, we won’t have anything to stand on.
Today, amid this pandemic, we face our own Robben Island, an opportunity for our own “Other Everest” journey. Collectively, we are facing an opportunity to make us either bitter or better. Our decisions and actions will determine whether we use our pain, fear, grief, outrage and inconveniences to move toward accountable, caring, authentic citizens. Today, nothing is more important than strengthening our character and developing our maturity by taking responsibility for our lives, seeing the good in others, and clarifying our principles that serve the greater good.
EXCITING NEWS!
I am in the process of forming a business partnership with Ally Stone, who has assisted with the Banff Authentic Leadership retreats the past two years. We are building an online leadership development firm with an expanded team offering a variety of products and services, including coaching, an online leadership masterclass, live retreats (once it is safe to do so), customized live-streaming presentations, workshops, and leadership consulting.
Our in-person workshops will resume just as soon as we can ensure they can be done safely. In the meantime, the entire four-day Authentic Leadership retreat will be available on-line in the fall.
Ally and I are presenting a debut live-stream session on September 17, 2020. This is an opportunity to meet Ally and witness the incredible synergy we create together as a team. This is a complimentary event to thank you for being a part of my community. Be sure to watch for your invite. You do not want to miss out on this opportunity (RSVP will be required to attend). Together Ally and I bring a new level of awareness, understanding and commitment to what the Authentic Journey looks like in this ever-changing world.

CREATING PSYCHOLOGICALLY SAFE WORKPLACES – It Will Depend on All of Us

There are people in our world who do not feel safe because of the color of their skin. There are people who don’t feel safe because of their gender. There are people who don’t feel safe because of their religious beliefs or sexual orientation. This has to stop. It’s time to decide, once and for all, that inequality and this kind of fear are unacceptable.
Living without fear begins with the way we raise and educate our children, relate to each other in our communities, and approach each other in our workplaces. Why not start with the realization that there are people in our society who do not even feel safe coming to work. They don’t feel safe to speak honestly, to offer ideas, or to be themselves. They fear that sharing concerns and mistakes will mean embarrassment or retribution; that if they are honest, they will be humiliated, ignored, or blamed. They fear asking questions when they are unsure of something. They sit on their hands, stay within the lines, underperform and become dissatisfied. When people are afraid, they stay dangerously silent, they disengage, they lie, and they leave if they can. Or worst of all, they quit and stay.
Far too many managers – both knowingly and unknowingly – still believe that fear is what motivates. Too many managers are unaware of how unacknowledged stress and anxiety breeds fear around them. Brain science has amply demonstrated that fear inhibits learning, productivity, engagement, innovation, and fulfillment.
As we emerge and re-engage from this pandemic, the need for people to feel safe as they face uncertainty and anxiety is more important than ever. And a great opportunity lies in front us to reset the compass and create fearless organizations and lives. Let’s decide to change the world by creating safe, authentic places for people to live and work. Here are seven strategies:
1. Take 100% accountability. The issue of fear will never recede in our world until it recedes within ourselves. Taking accountability means committing to examine the level of fear that we knowingly, or unknowingly, create around us. Changing the world starts with looking in the mirror. Taking accountability also means being willing to understand how our past impacts our perception of our current reality. Due to our reaction to past trauma, abuse, and shame, many people do not feel safe living in their own body, tainting every relationship in their life, particularly those in authority. Before blaming your boss for disrespecting you and not creating a safe workplace, understand how your past impacts the lens with which you view the world. Changing the world means taking accountability for facing, healing, and coming to peace with our past. While organizations are accountable for co-creating a safe environment with their employees, security must come from within each one of us individually.
2. Take care of yourself. Given the enormous level uncertainty in the world right now, resist the natural human tendency to “push through,” and instead, slow down and define what truly matters to you. Use this time to create a safe place within. Creating a safe space around you starts with feeling safe with who you are. Self-care isn’t always comfortable or easy. Self-care means respecting yourself enough to know what you need and creating disciplined routines that ensure those needs get met. Make sure you get support for yourself so you can create safety and support those around you. We ultimately treat others the way we treat ourselves.
3. Bring a servant mindset and a generous spirit to your work. According to Lance Secretan, “leadership is a serving relationship that helps people grow and makes the world a better place.” It starts with being a “we” person rather than a “me” person. It’s about supporting people to get the work done rather than controlling and manipulating; and helping them be the best they can be in the process. Leadership is ultimately about caring, because leadership involves caring for people, not manipulating them. If you don’t genuinely value everyone’s unique contribution, creating a psychologically safe organization will remain elusive and superficial.
4. Be human. At this stage of the pandemic, people are experiencing a variety of emotions. They are nervous and anxious, fatigued from fear and uncertain about the future. There’s grieving, ambiguous loss, resentment, and a mixture of caution and optimism as we emerge into a new reality. There can be awkwardness with people you haven’t seen face-to-face for several months and uncertainty about new expectations and norms. Take time to listen, to be there for those you serve, and to look for opportunities to connect and have the conversations. Most of what you’ll hear you likely can’t fix. What people need to know is that you care enough to take the time. It’s a time to grant grace and exercise patience. It’s a time to practice being human.
5. Get rid of performance appraisals. Stop evaluating, grading, supervising, and treating people like children. Replace parental, disrespectful reviews with ongoing feedback, honest respectful conversations, shared ownership, two-way accountability, and mutual agreements that support both personal as well as organizational success. Be a partner with your staff, not a parent.
6. Be curious, humble, and vulnerable. Great leaders know they aren’t the smartest person in the room. They surround themselves with capable people and then take time to learn from them. They know that no one is better than anyone else. We all merely bring unique gifts to our lives and our work. Making it safe means being vulnerable and open to learn from everyone and asking for help when you need it. Being vulnerable means sharing what matters to you and listening to what matters to those around you.
7. Invite the bad news and say thank you. If you’re going to live or work together in the spirit of humanness, you are going to have to accept that there will be bad news. Great leaders don’t pretend that it isn’t there and cover up the facts. They embrace the negative and see it as a growth opportunity. Making it safe to bring the bad news isn’t about blame. It’s about ownership, personal responsibility, courage, and honesty. It takes a secure leader to be grateful that people trust you enough to bring you the hard stuff, and open enough to learn together how you’re going to work collaboratively to fix it.
In summary, creating a fearless, psychologically safe workplace does not happen by accident. Just because you see yourself as a good leader, doesn’t mean that people around you necessarily feel safe. You have to be intentional. A safe environment doesn’t mean that everyone always agrees and are polite to each other all the time. It’s about a genuine commitment to honesty and respect. It means having clearly defined expectations of each other, along with high standards and working in partnership to achieve those standards. It also means we accept that we are all human and that we are going to fall short at times and it’s okay to talk about it, learn from it, and recommit to a new course of action.
To create psychological safety, positional leaders need to make an explicit – formal and informal – space and time for open, ongoing, acceptable discussion of error, failure, and shortcomings. Conflict will inevitably arise, and we need a safe place to speak candidly about what’s bothering us, with each person taking responsibility to look at their contribution to the conflict. We need to be intentional about inviting participation and sincerely valuing every person’s input. We also need to be intentional about recognizing and expressing sincere appreciation. What we appreciate appreciates. And, perhaps above all, we need to grant grace that it takes time, patience, and persistence – let’s give the human spirit a chance.
For a more in-depth study of psychological safety in the workplace, I recommend Amy Edmondson’s book: The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety In The Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth.