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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 Find Security In A World Filled With Uncertainty

“Circumstances do not determine a person; they reveal a person”

Reality has always been filled with uncertainty, but I’ve never had more uncertainty in my life than now. Here are just a few of the questions that have been on my mind recently:
• Will we ever get back to relating comfortably with each other again?
• Will my daughter be able to come home for Christmas? When will I see my grandkids (who live in the US) again?
• What if I unknowingly pass Covid on to someone else? If I contract Covid, what impact will it have on me? How about on my family?
• What will the impact of zoom meetings and remote working conditions have on my business long term?
• Will this pandemic ever actually be “over?” And what will the new reality look like? And how will we even know it is “over?”
With my sensitive nervous system and propensity toward worry, I struggle to find strength and peace of mind. Here are seven ways I have found security and inner well-being in the midst of the uncertainty:
1. Separate Security From Safety. Safety is a condition of being protected from harm in order to achieve an acceptable standard of risk. Safety comes from your environment. In its simplest terms, your workplace or relationship is either physically safe or it is physically unsafe. Psychologically, it is either safe for interpersonal risk-taking or it isn’t safe. Security, on the other hand, is a state of confidence that arises from one’s capacity to face the demands of reality. Security comes from within. “Security,” Helen Keller said once, “is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing.” It is the organization’s responsibility to ensure a safe work environment, but it is an employee’s job to be secure within that environment. The best companies create loyalty through great leadership and culture, not through the illusion of job security. Job security comes from one’s employability, one’s capacity to be employed. Like an employer, it is the responsibility of our public health system to create a safe society. However, the path of security, in the world of a pandemic, is to take responsibility for our own health and well-being – so we’ll have the strongest immune system possible. No one else is going to do that for us.
2. Become Stronger. My father used to say to me, “Don’t pray for life to get easier. Pray, instead, for you to get stronger.” 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.” I find it strengthening to regularly workout on the weights and hit the bag. While sustaining and growing physical strength is helpful, what it does to strengthen my mind is even better. You get stronger by doing something difficult. What are you doing every day that’s hard, but you do it anyway? We’ve all heard that self-care is important. But self-care usually isn’t comfortable or easy or painless. Self-care is what you don’t want to do but you know you need to do because of how you feel after you do it. Becoming stronger can be as simple as making your bed every morning. Strength is not about velocity; it’s about direction. What direction are you headed?
3. Build Community. Through this pandemic, I’ve never felt more isolated, and I’ve never felt more connected. We are all in this together. No one is unscathed from the impact of COVID-19. Every day I reach out and deepen my relationship with my community – my handful of trusted confidants. Not only am I using this time to get stronger physically and mentally, I’m using this time to strengthen my relationships with the important people in my life. Every day I share something with someone about my fears, my doubts, my insecurities, and my dreams. I talk about my losses and my grief, my anxiety and my worry, my vision and my intentions. It doesn’t need to go on Facebook, but it does need to be shared with the people who matter most. Sunlight is the best disinfectant.
4. Replace Optimism With A Firm Resolve. 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.” There’s no end in sight to the pandemic and we don’t even know what the end will look like. What we do know is that strength lies in staying present in the present moment and power comes from a firm resolve we will get through this and will be better for it. “I wish it need not have happened in my time,” said Frodo. “So do I,” said Gandalf, “and so to all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
5. Choose Service over Self-Interest. In my book, Caring Is Everything: Getting To The Heart of Humanity, Leadership, and Life, I discuss the value of expressing our innate generosity as an antidote to most of what ails us. At times, caring happens as a reflex. It isn’t something we think about or “try” to do. It’s the instinctive response of an open heart. Someone slips, our arm goes out. The car in front of us is in an accident and we stop to help. A colleague feels down, and we buy them a cup of coffee. It all seems natural and appropriate. Through caring naturally for one another, we can glimpse an essential quality of our being. We may be sitting alone, lost in self-pity, feeling sorry for ourselves, when the phone rings with a call from a friend who is really depressed. Instinctively, we come out of ourselves and are there for another. It doesn’t matter what is said, but when a little comfort is shared, we hang up and feel a little more content with ourselves. We’re reminded of who we really are and what we can offer one another.
6. Practice Gratitude. In The Hiding Place, Corrie Ten Boom tells of her involvement in the Dutch resistance during World War II, and how she managed to survive Hitler’s concentration camps and afterward travel the world as a public speaker. “Every experience God gives us, every person He puts in our lives, is the perfect preparation for the future only He can see.” The practice of gratitude carried her through the years of torture and the death of her family members. At one point, she even practiced gratitude for the fleas, for they were a part of “all circumstances.” She was a courageous woman who brought to life the precious perspective of seeking the gift in everything. I’ve learned to always make your gratitude bigger than your circumstances. Here’s a quick exercise to try that proves that gratitude can change your outlook. Pick any person you know and ask yourself, what do I appreciate about this person? Try to write down at least ten things. Now observe how your attitude toward that person has shifted. You can even take it a step further and let the person know what’s on your list. Gratitude changes everything. What you appreciate appreciates. Gratitude is like a muscle. Just as it is strengthening, so it has to also be strengthened. It has to be practiced.
7. Find Strength From Within. Whether you call it faith or inner well-being, security ultimately must come from within. I’ve learned this in my work with addictions for the past two decades. To get well, drug addicts and alcoholics have to find some kind of strength beyond their own capacity. They have to come to grips with the brutal facts that there is no security outside of themselves. Alcohol won’t do it. Drugs won’t do it. Food won’t do it. Order and control won’t do it. Fame and money and notoriety won’t do it. Security is an inside job. There is simply not enough stuff in the world to fill the emptiness inside of us. It’s an inside job. William Stafford’s journey with words began most mornings before sunrise. This simple poem, “The Way It Is,” written 26 days before he passed, expresses brilliantly what it means to find an inner place of calm and steadiness in the midst of the vicissitudes of life.

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.

Uncertainty is integral to life. Without uncertainty there would be no room for new possibility. In our willingness to accept uncertainty, solutions will spontaneously emerge out of the problem, out of the confusion, disorder, and chaos. The more uncertain things seem to be, the more secure you can feel, because accepting uncertainty is the path to freedom. In the wisdom of uncertainty lies the freedom from our past, from knowing, from the prison of past conditioning. Through the willingness to step wholeheartedly and fully into the unknown, we step into the field of possibility. When we discover both inner well-being and wisdom amid the uncertainty, we find security.

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.

Facing Racism: It Starts With Personal Accountability

I was lamenting with a colleague about how we all have areas in our lives and our leadership that drive other people crazy, cause damage to the world around us, and hurt the people we care about. And we are blind to them. That’s why we call them blind spots in our leadership development program. So much of what we bring to the world causes harm and requires intentional work to improve our leadership, and yet has become so habitual that we aren’t even aware of it. It all seems fine to us, but we are blind to how destructive it can be.

So it would appear that perhaps the eruption of anger toward inequality and discrimination in our society is a reckoning of our own blind spots around the issue of racism. Professional athletes this week have reminded us all that there is something more important at work here than winning games, making money, and the achievement of goals.

It seems to be human nature to avoid problems and dodge the truth. After all, who wants to look at the financial ledger of our businesses or our lives? It’s easier to procrastinate a visit to the doctor than face lab work results. It’s easier to avoid facing the difficulties in a marriage than confront what’s really going on. Who wants to admit they have an addiction and actually do something about it?

It’s easy to criticize leaders in an organization for not facing reality or confronting brutal facts and acting on the implications. But how many of us do this in our own lives? And it’s easy to judge the racism we see around us, but what about the unacknowledged prejudice within us?

I recently spoke to a high-ranking public service leader who publicly made a statement that there was systemic racism in the culture that she led, and she was taking action to rectify it. She opened herself to much criticism from her employees, but her courage to face reality demonstrated the strength of her character. It also deepened her credibility and the respect of her best employees.

We all have our prejudices. Only when we own up to them and face this reality will we begin to heal the world – and heal our lives. Helping people see their blind spots is a large part of the work we do in our retreats and online programs for developing authentic leaders (see www.irvinestone.com).

There are specific actions you can take to change the world by facing some of your own racism blind spots. Let’s do our part to heal the world by taking personal accountability:

  • Speak to someone you know well who is different from you – in gender, race, ethnic background, or sexual orientation – and ask if they have experienced you being prejudiced, disrespectful, judgmental, or insensitive – and how. Say thank you and listen carefully to what they have to say. Be sincerely open to learn from them.
  • If the level of honesty about these questions may be in doubt, invite the people you work with to provide the answers to these questions anonymously.
  • If they honestly don’t perceive you as prejudiced, then still take time to listen to what they have to say. If something in you gets triggered, resist the human tendency to get defensive and instead use the trigger to open a new door to learn something. It’s important to begin the dialogue.
  • Treat all diversity as an opportunity to learn and face the truth. It’s a life-long endeavor, and one worth pursuing – for the sake of a good life and for the sake of the survival of our species.

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.