I’m Sorry… But I’m Not Sure How to Say That

By: On October 30, 2017

Elton John was right all those years ago: Sorry really is the hardest word. At least, it’s hard to say without coming off lame. Ask any number of public figures who have tried and failed recently.  “I’m sorry if you were offended,” is probably the most commonly used lame apology. In England where I lived for a couple of years, this poor excuse for an apology usually sounds like “we’re sorry for any offence caused,” making it sound like some shadowy third party caused the apology. Not me. Not us.  

I’ve done my share of poor apologies and I’ve seen the look of confusion, outrage, or just numbness on the other person’s face.  Not long ago, I got on a roll in a meeting and steamrolled a younger member of a client team in front of a larger group. Though I was factually correct in what I said, I was quite simply an ass in how I said it. I knew it immediately by the way the shades came down over her face. She went from engaged in the conversation to checked out, just waiting for this middle aged dude to get out of her face so that she could get back to doing something useful.

I faced that choice we all face when we realize we’ve been a dope. I could ignore the injury, make a lame apology, or do the hard work of repairing the relationship. In the heat of the moment, I chose a mashup of ignoring and lame apology. And that’s why the shades didn’t only roll down but got locked in place.

In truth, I didn’t mean to offer a lame apology. I just didn’t want to say I was sorry for everything that had happened. In my mind, my intent in the situation had been noble. I was trying to be sure that my client’s group made a solid decision. And while falling on my sword in front of that group might have mollified this woman, my “I want to be honest and correct” brain repelled the idea.

Soon I was the confused one. What started out trying to be both conciliatory and honest ended up just being awkward. Which made me want to shut my big trap and not bother apologizing at all. Ever again. To anyone. So there.

I knew swearing off apologies was probably not the best idea. Instead, I went to my live-in marriage therapist – who happens to be my wife – for advice. She has a lot of experience with lame apologies, both mine and those of clients stumbling through apologies with their life partners. How, I asked her, does a dude actually get across an apology that is both effective and honest?

She smiled at me knowingly and said, “Why that’s simple. But not necessarily easy. You might want to take notes.” Well, then.

What follows is my cliff notes version of how to apologize like a decent human being. Note: My color commentary is not Therapist-Approved. I apologize in advance to The Therapist for any liberties taken. I’m just a dude.

  1. Invite the other person to tell you the pain caused by the event. You’ll be about as excited to do this as to visit the dentist. Buck up. Unlike your trip to the dentist, resist the urge to ask for laughing gas. Put on your big kid pants and embrace the pain. In my client situation, this looked like, “It looks like maybe I did something that shut you down. Our working relationship matters to me and your input matters to this group, so I’d like to hear your side of the story.”
    • Pro Tip: When you start this conversation, be very careful to separate what you can observe from what you’re inferring. Avoid saying something like “You’re really upset,” since the other person might start arguing with you about whether or not they’re upset. While perhaps amusing, this argument would be a waste of time. “The expression on your face makes me wonder if you’re upset,” is safer. Unless that’s how they look all of the time. Then I wish you good luck. Buckle up for the ride.
  2. Listen carefully, almost curiously. Try to understand what the other person’s core response to the event was. Usually it’s some version of fear, sadness, or anger. The more I listened to my client, the more I started to see her core response. When you cut through the noise, she was saying, “I’m a younger member of the team and when someone older and more powerful steamrolls me, I may as well not even be here. It confirms what I suspect is true most days anyway – that my opinion just doesn’t count.”
    • Pro Tip: Don’t tell the alpha male/female in the room that they’re really afraid or sad. They won’t want to acknowledge that they ever feel those emotions, especially not at work. Instead, give them time and space to say out loud what they’re upset about. Notice where they may feel threatened or like they lost something important. Tuck that away in the back of your head.
  3. Try to show you get the other person’s point of view by replaying in your own words what happened and why it matters to the other person. Be as factual as possible. With my client, I had to try something like this. “It sounds like you want your opinion to be heard and treated as valuable in this group – especially since you’re younger and newer than the average team member.”
    • Pro tip: Don’t say things like “I made an innocuous little comment and you totally overreacted.” Those are judgements and even if they’re true, you’re just asking for a smack to the kisser.
  4. Express true remorse for what has happened. This basically looks like saying, “Your interests matter to me. I care that you feel this way. I can see how my actions led you to react that way. I regret that and I want to help us move forward.”  In my client situation, this looked like, “I get it. I can see how I made you look bad in the group and I’m really sorry about that. While I didn’t mean to do that, I own that my actions had that result.”
    • Pro Tip: It’s a bonus if you can say something like, “I feel  ______ about what happened.” As long as _____ isn’t something like “smug” or” justified” or “exultant.” Try something on the sad spectrum like unhappy or disappointed. Or on the embarrassed spectrum like sorry or foolish. Unless you’re a drama king/queen, leave crushed, heartbroken, and tormented for your romantic relationships.
  5. Work on the outline for a future, happier story with your colleague. Ask, “When we encounter a situation like this again – because we will –  how should we handle it?” With my client, I could try something like, “Sometimes I get on a roll in a meeting. Can we work out a signal you can give me if I’m shutting you down?”
    • Pro Tip: You don’t have to agree to whatever comes out of your colleague’s mouth. Treat it as a brainstorming exercise where you’re on the same side of the table trying to figure out a better way to approach a challenging situation. After brainstorming a few options, you can choose those that work for both of you.

You might be wondering, if it’s so simple, why is apologizing so difficult, especially for leaders? Maybe it’s because most leadership teams have unwritten rules about admitting you’re wrong. Being wrong is seen as weakness. And weakness is dangerous in a competitive environment where your status in the group – and your ultimate value in your work world – ride on being right and winning.

This makes constructive apologies really difficult. It means asking your brain a question that the reflexive “I want to smack this person in the nose” part of your brain simply can’t answer. Something like “what legitimate goal is this person really trying to accomplish here and how can I help them get it?” works pretty well.

You might also be saying, “But I had to do what I did! It was the right thing to do and I’d do the same thing again if faced with a similar situation. I can’t always make everyone happy.”

Yup, this happens plenty. However, it doesn’t prevent you from sincerely saying “I’m sorry that my actions hurt/angered/inconvenienced you. There are plenty of reasons why I took those actions but they probably don’t matter to you right now. And I want you to know that I’d never intend to hurt you. ”

As uncomfortable as apologies might be, we should wrap our arms around these situations and give them big hugs. Apologies are a sign of acceptance that something went less than perfectly. Well-handled apologies teach a team that they can be imperfect and it will still be OK. All of the best research on productive teams says that they work better when team members don’t fear being wrong. Creativity blossoms. Transparency increases. Outcomes improve because team members don’t hide.

      

Pride goes before a fall. Humility, perhaps best exemplified by the ability to apologize well, goes before trust, authenticity, and success. Build those practices into your leadership team and you’ll be able to face just about anything head on. Over time that will create a sense of momentum that will be contagious to all who come in contact with you. You’ll also become the kind of person who you’d want on your own team.

Who knew that being wrong could be so useful?

Be Bright.

When Getting Sh*t Done Doesn’t Get It Done

By: On October 2, 2017

Matt is a high achieving, high potential leader at a fast growth company. His job requires him to pull together the efforts of multiple groups – marketing, sales, operations – to achieve the company’s quarterly goals. It’s a process that naturally creates friction as he asks colleagues to make adjustments and compromises, not all of which are welcome or convenient.

Matt’s bosses put him in this role because he can be, well, assertive. They know it’s a tough job but that Matt is results-oriented. Failure is not an option. A little friction doesn’t bother the bosses as long as the noise doesn’t get too loud.

In Matt’s work life, a pattern has emerged. It all starts with Matt arriving in a whirlwind, fresh off a breathless commute on crowded expressways. He walks from the parking garage to his office, and there waiting for him is Maya, his assistant. She tells him that a fire is burning, that the CEO and Matt’s boss want to see him. Pronto.

They call Matt into a hastily convened meeting in the hipster board room. There’s a performance problem and they need it fixed so that the company can hit the quarterly targets they promised the all-powerful analysts on Wall Street.

The execs turn to Matt expectantly. He knows what this means. While he didn’t create the problem, it’s now his big smelly bag of dirt.

“Figure out a way to make this happen,” they say as they are hustled from the room by a frantic-looking executive assistant whose unenviable job it is to keep this crew on schedule.

“Oh,” the CEO says as he’s leaving the room, “keep the reasons for this move quiet. We don’t want to have any leaks to the Street.”

Matt starts running the numbers immediately in his head. His brain is a big, fast processor legendary in the company for its ability to grind through data and get to solid answers. By the time he’s hit the restroom and gotten back to his office, he has a pretty clear picture of what needs to happen.

It’s going to be ugly because the moves he will suggest directly contradict what many employees were asked to do last week. Nothing makes people crazier than rapid changes of direction that lead to dumping a week’s work in the garbage. But that’s life in the fast lane.

It’s right here where Matt faces a choice: leave his soul locked firmly in his glove compartment or let work be a laboratory for his soul. Let’s imagine what happens depending on which choice he makes.

Option 1: Business as usual

Imagine a day where Matt just goes about his business with his soul stuffed safely in the glove box of his Mercedes.  When he hits his office, Matt is all action. He starts by whipping off emails to several people around the organization, asking them to re-direct their actions toward the new directive from on high. Since speed matters, he skips a few levels in this communication, in several cases bypassing his peer group to get to their people who actually do the daily work. Since confidentiality matters, he’s light on the reasons behind this hard right turn.

It only takes a few minutes for the first email response to come back from one of the troops. The message is simple: “Ummm… Huh? Seriously? Why are we doing this?” Matt sends off a curt email that mostly says, “Get moving. Because I said so.”

Not long after, Matt gets his first email from Atul, a peer who runs a key marketing function. Edited for content, the message is direct: “WTF?” Atul doesn’t understand why the sudden change of direction – and he disagrees with it. With a teeny bit of energy.

Though Atul doesn’t mention it directly, Matt is pretty sure the folks in the trenches are complaining that the directives are going to make them waste a whole bunch of work. In an attempt to mollify their troops, Atul and other peers are pushing back. They’re miffed that Matt has gone around them and in the process stirred up problems in their teams.

Matt can feel the irritation rising. Like a quarterback running the play given him in a long-yardage situation, Matt doesn’t think it’s worth wasting time bitching about it. The play clock is running. Get to the line of scrimmage. Run the play. See what happens. Then get ready to run the next play. We can peer at the game film later. Right now, it’s time to get moving.

As he reads the steady stream of emails on his phone between meetings, he mutters to himself, “Quit complaining! We’re in this mess partly because you didn’t execute your part of the original plan. We can’t control it – so just run your part of the play. And don’t worry, it will change again in a couple of weeks. So get the hell over it.” Of course, he doesn’t say this directly to his colleagues, but it’s the script playing in his head.

In an unrelated meeting that afternoon, the topic bubbles up with a couple of peers. They challenge Matt on whether the current U-turn makes sense. With blunt force analytical trauma, he puts them right back on the defensive with equal parts data and passion. After the first 30 seconds of his barrage, his teammates switch to sullen resignation.

As he’s driving home, Matt takes a certain amount of satisfaction in knowing that he had man-handled the messy challenge given to him by the CEO. He takes no particular joy in pissing people off. But given a less-than-perfect situation, he had made the best of it. And he knows he has cemented his reputation as a get-it-done guy with the CEO, never a bad brand to have.

In three other cars and on one commuter train heading out of the city, his colleagues are going home bewildered and frustrated. One of them says to herself, “I want to believe there’s a good person inside Matt. But I don’t see it very often.

Option 2: Matt sees work as a laboratory for the soul

Let’s run that same day with Matt’s soul smack dab in the middle of the story. Although Maya sees Matt come through the door at the same time of day, what she may not see is that he spent a very crucial fifteen minutes in his living room at home before heading to the office. During that time, Matt pulled out a black notebook and did a brief inventory of the day before.

He played back the interactions and challenges he faced. He asked himself what was going on inside him at key moments in the day, how his thoughts and internal reactions (aka *feelings*) shaped his behavior for good and bad. He made a mental note to thank one colleague for going above and beyond the call of duty, and apologize to another for a careless comment he made.

In his Mercedes SUV on the way to the office, Matt consciously chooses to back off the speed. He allows people to cut in front of him. He goes in a slower lane instead of weaving to find the optimally fast route. He knows that he’ll arrive at work within 2-3 minutes of the same time no matter how aggressively he drives. He also knows that hurry is one of the great destroyers of the soul.

Driving peacefully – or at least as peacefully as you can on a major city’s expressways in rush hour – costs you a few minutes. In exchange, it forces you to remember what’s important and it allows you to slow your own thoughts down. It’s also a good way to practice putting yourself in someone else’s shoes, imagining what might be going on in someone’s life to make them drive like an idiot. He chooses to wish the best for other drivers instead of giving them the one-fingered salute.

In the hurriedly arranged meeting with the CEO, Matt listens carefully. His big processor whirs into action. He can see several alternatives but they all involve difficult trade-offs. There’s no way around that.

It doesn’t take long for Matt to decide on the best course of action – or maybe the least worst course of action. Matt knows that what’s being asked of him will irritate several of his colleagues. Before launching into action, he checks back in with his boss.

“Here’s what I think we need to do,” he says, jumping to a whiteboard. “It’s going to piss some people off but I think it’s the best way to get the result you’re asking for.” His boss listens and gives him that look that says, “Do what you have to do.”

Matt is tempted to leap into the fray. Instead, he makes a quick mental list of the top three colleagues who will likely be affected by his plan. He shoots off a few texts, asking for an impromptu one on one meeting with each.

His first meeting is with Atul. Matt lays out what he can of the situation. Then he quickly comes to the point. “If I’m in your shoes, this plan is going to suck a little because your team is going to feel like we’re yanking them around. Can you think of any better way to do this?”

They talk for a while, each asking the other questions. Matt tries hard to listen, to slow his mind down for these crucial five minutes, to unplug the part of his mind that says, “I have all of the answers already.”

Unconsciously aware that he’ll be replaying this meeting the next morning in his little black book, Matt observes Atul carefully, almost as an independent third party in the room. He notices small facial expressions that he would have missed in the old days. This slower pace helps him remember that Atul’s mother is in the hospital, a detail he could easily have forgotten in the heat of the moment.

Finally, Atul pauses for a moment. He’s clearly not happy but he appreciates that Matt is taking the time to ask his opinion – and to acknowledge the situation is suboptimal – before moving forward.

“No. I don’t like it. But I can’t see a better way.” He pauses for a minute. “Can you at least tell my team why we’re making this change?”

“What I can tell them is that we need to change the mix of our marketing emphasis. I can’t really give them more detail than that. I think you know why. I’m really sorry.”

Atul gets it. It’s not his first day on the job. He nods his head. “OK. Let’s do the best we can. Just copy me on the email. And if you get big pushback, let me know before you drop the hammer.”

“Of course.” Before leaving, Matt shares how he’s planning to message his emails with Atul and gets a few pointers on how to position the information that will minimize the stir below them.

The rest of the meetings go pretty much the same way. No one is doing cartwheels. But they all appreciate that Matt looped them in and showed that he had thought about how this move would affect them and their teams.

Matt now moves into action. He writes his emails to the junior teams, taking the extra minute to read them over while imagining his colleagues seeing them. He makes a few adjustments and hits send.

Despite his hard work, Matt gets a few emails and texts back from team members questioning the move. He feels the irritation beginning to rise inside, especially given the fact that he had taken the step of talking with his peers. But he takes a deep breath and resists the urge to fire off a nasty-gram. In a couple of cases, he gets up from his desk and walks across the office to speak to those who were pushing back, trying to acknowledge their concerns while gently sticking to his guns.

At the end of the day, Matt drives home and thinks back on the day. He’s largely thankful – for the opportunities he has, for the relationships he’s built, even for the challenges he faces since he knows they’re pulling the best from him.

He makes a mental note to thank two people at work for little moves they made today toward working together and away from the normal dog-eat-dog approach. Yes, there are a few things he’d take back and one or two apologies to make tomorrow. But all in all, he sees progress in how he reacted to events beyond his control. He still got the plan in motion.

To be fair, Matt’s soul-centered approach has costs. He spent more time up front bringing his colleagues along. He invested time before that paying attention to his thoughts and reactions – and practicing the fine art of slowing down. These actions made small differences in this one day. But this is the long game he’s playing, at work and with his soul. Many small steps in the right direction gets you up the mountain.

The next morning, he’ll start the day in his living room with his little black notebook. He’ll have good things to write down. He’ll refocus for that day.

Step back from those two scenarios and look at what choosing Option 2 will mean for Matt. His relationships at work will be less guarded and more straightforward. He’ll spend less time calculating and playing the angles and more time getting work done. He’ll have more relational credibility in the bank for the day when he has to ask for a favor, something we’re all bound to need eventually. He’ll more easily see someone like Atul as a real human being with understandable human issues. When he realizes that part of Atul’s reaction may be caused by a personal issue like his mother being the hospital, Matt won’t feel like so much of a jerk. In a counterintuitive way, Matt will end up being more efficient in the long run even if there are moments where a slower approach will frustrate him.

The benefit doesn’t stop there. Using work as a laboratory for the soul almost always translates to the rest of life. Matt’s family will benefit from the exercise he’s giving to his muscles of observation, empathy, and humility. He’ll be able to tell his wife and kids that he’s wrong without gritting his teeth so much.

And of course, Matt will benefit in his relationship with himself. He’ll know deep down that he’s not just a tool for his bosses – what I call a Useful Asshole – to get dirty work done. He’ll know that he’s a secret agent of good in a world that needs an army of them. Maybe best of all, he’ll begin to become forgetful of himself and experience the joy of focusing on others. He’ll take that mission very seriously while not taking himself seriously at all.

I could end there, but I want to make sure you don’t miss something very important. Option 2 is not about more clever techniques to get others to do what you want, or methods for being popular at work. Yes, you probably will be more productive and your relational stock will likely rise.

But Option 2 is fundamentally about seeing work as one of the greatest opportunities for inner transformation any of us ever has, as a laboratory for the soul. Treat work with that kind of reverence and it’s hard for things to turn out wrong.

Be Bright.

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Ted Does TEDx

By: On April 24, 2017

Bread Dude hits UW Madison

What would you talk about if you were invited to speak for no more than 18 minutes to 100 bright university students? At 10AM on a Saturday morning? In December? In balmy Madison, Wisconsin?

That was the challenge I faced after exchanging emails with a client’s daughter who was running the TEDx conference at UW Madison last December. Given my first name, I’ve always wanted to do a TED talk. I would even have considered changing my middle name to Xavier so that I could legitimately do a TEDx talk.

Now it was right in front of me and I had to find an angle.

I puzzled for a few weeks, pretty sure that trying to wow students with my insights on strategy or how executive teams work would be a real snoozer for 20-somethings who had wrestled themselves out of bed on a wintry Saturday morning. But I never learned to juggle. I haven’t cracked the code on cancer. I’m nowhere close to figuring out how to get to Mars. I didn’t think I had anything dazzling to say.

Then, while talking with my friend Amy, it hit me. After 25 years in the everyday work world of organizations big and small, what do I know now that I wish someone had told me when I was 21? Or 25? Or maybe even 30? Heck, what do I still have to remind myself about even as my wife reports I have a growing bald spot and my goatee threatens streaks of grey?

The theme of TEDx UW Madison was “Thinking Differently,” so I chose to tackle thinking differently about being happy at work. Just a teeny, tiny topic.

For inspiration, I tapped into the adventure my family and I have been embarked on called Noonday Bread. And my dad’s little-known yet inspiring story. And observations from working with hundreds of senior leaders over the past couple of decades, too many of whom are far too unhappy at work.

Stir all of that together, add the yeast of a creative Prezi, let it ferment for a few months and you get this presentation, called Getting the Math Right: Thinking Differently About the Good Life. I hope it challenges you as much as it does me.

And hats off to the group of students who pulled off TEDx UW Madison with such a high degree of professionalism. It was a pleasure to be part of the experience.

Be Bright.

I Gave Up Criticism for Lent

By: On March 15, 2016

I gave up criticism for Lent.

My Lenten practice in real life

My Lenten practice in real life

This seemed like a good idea at the time. I’ve noticed how I reflexively see and point out flaws in those around me – clients, colleagues, friends. And then there are my kids. And myself. There are so many flaws to point out and fix. It’s a target rich environment.

But I don’t think criticism – at least criticism in the absence of love – creates much value. I wondered what life would be like without it. After a lifetime of diligent practice to the point of perfecting it as an art form, I had given up sarcasm years ago. I realized sarcasm was just contempt masked with humor, and contempt is rarely an attractive quality.  Walking away from sarcasm was no great loss even if I sometimes had to forego a snappy comeback.

So I decided to give up criticism for forty days.

And then the latest phase of the presidential election came along. I wondered if this is really a good time for this particular Lenten practice.  I spent several days suffering criticus interruptus. My running partner asked me what I thought of a particular candidate and I stammered through my thoughts like a truculent witness under cross examination, choosing words like I’d choose steps in a minefield. As a dad, I’m used to having to edit my words. But weeding out criticism when the warning lights of wrongness are blinking like strobe lights at a rock concert – well, that makes you swallow hard and often. I fear getting a kind of criticism indigestion.

And yet, taking on a challenge like this may be a very useful enterprise. I’m coming to see work as a laboratory of the soul. And while I may find my ability to point out flaws endearing, I’m pretty sure those around me at work find it less charming.

A couple of weeks into my Lenten experiment, I noticed something. Avoiding criticism is good, but it’s not the whole picture. Given my long history of seeing and saying faults, avoiding criticism just looks like being quiet a lot. In itself, silence is not bad. You can do a lot worse than not saying unhelpful things.

Of course, the sad truth is that I still see the flaws. I just talk to myself about them instead of saying them out loud. I’m probably not a good enough actor to convince people that I’m not being critical when I think and feel critical thoughts. Those thoughts and feelings ooze out of us in ways we don’t see but are obvious to everyone else.

No, where the lab experiment gets interesting is when you turn your attention from only avoiding criticism and instead actively seek to bring good into the lives of others. The old-fashioned word for this is blessing, to will and to actively work for the good of those around you.

That’s easy enough to do for those I already like – the client who usually agrees with me, the colleague who amazingly laughs at my jokes. It’s harder when dealing with the difficult people in my world – the guy whose default setting to my ideas in a meeting last week was skepticism and (ironically) criticism; the colleague who misses deadlines; the Delta airlines employee who had the gall to stop me (a United flyer with status) from using the express line at their TSA checkpoint; the taxi driver who I couldn’t describe to my wife when I arrived home because doing so would have been non-stop criticism.

Those situations require me to seek the grace to step out of myself. I have to put myself in the shoes of the skeptical client, the tardy colleague, the helpless Delta employee following blind rules, and the hapless cab driver – to imagine what might be their circumstances that could lead to these reactions. Moving from empathy to blessing – well, that requires a level of grace well beyond my natural ability.

And maybe that’s why this is the perfect time for this soul experiment. Maybe putting yourself in a situation where your own resources are simply inadequate is exactly what it’s about.

Noonday Sun

Be bright.

Choose Joy

By: On November 23, 2015
Emptiness or Joy?

Emptiness or Joy?

I don’t know about you, but some days I hate my job. I wake up to a calendar full of meetings – or worse yet, a day with few meetings at all and a deep sense of smallness as I wonder why no one wants to spend time with me. I feel pressure to swing the day’s events in my direction. I look around me and see climbers, people who are going up and up and up. Just seeing them out of the corner of my eye makes me feel a jolt of anxious energy to get going, to not fall behind.

I can’t help but hear all of the voices of our culture shouting insistently that I have to run faster, go farther, be smarter. That standing still is falling behind. That no one else is going to look out for me so I’d better get busy with self-preservation.

So I go to those meetings but I’m preoccupied. I feel impatient when someone in a meeting takes a little too long to get a point across or influences the agenda away from my interests. As soon as topics move away from what I care about, I’m tempted to check my email or plan for  the next meeting. I try again to redirect the conversation toward what I want, things that will make me happy. I categorize people in my day in terms of their ability to influence my personal self-interest. I completely miss or willfully ignore people who don’t directly advance my self-centered agenda.

I think my motives throughout the day are invisible to everyone around me, that I’m a splendid actor fooling everyone into thinking I’m actually a good and noble person.

I come home exhausted and cranky, because no matter how many wins I got, no one wins them all. And I’m not satisfied unless I win them all. I slouch through the evening at home, trying not to engage too deeply with my family and friends. I slink off to bed grumpy, only to start the cycle over the next morning.  Bottom line: I’m empty.

—–

I don’t know about you, but some days I love my job. I wake up to a calendar full of meetings or perhaps a day where there are wide open spaces. I remind myself that good days aren’t about me anyway. That the big questions in life – whether I matter, to whom I matter, whether it will all work out OK – are settled and done with.  And that good days are about living in that reality.

I look at my scheduled appointments and sense a quiet whisper asking me a simple question: “How can you love and serve these people today?” I know it’s a countercultural question in the marketplace where I work, a place where competition and self-preservation rule. I choose it anyway, not because I’m morally superior but because I know it simply works better. I do better work for people and I’m more tuned in. Others react better to my contributions. We all end up happier.

I walk through my day looking for opportunities to be of deep service to those I encounter, whether they know it or not. I make eye contact with people often overlooked by the movers and shakers in our world – the admins and custodians and the security person who signs me in at the front desk. I smile at them and exchange a pleasant word, maybe even a simple act of kindness.

I wave at the cranky people on the highway as they veer past, cutting me off. I try to be sure I’m using more than one finger as I wave. I imagine all of the valid reasons they could be in such a hurry and wish them the best.

In meetings, I try to attend to the other participants. I quiet the voice in my head that wants to control the meeting only for my own gain. Instead I try to see how I can serve the others as well. If my agenda is not truly in their best interest, I release it. If my agenda is truly in their interest, I pursue it – but gently, respectful of their freedom to choose even if they choose a way I see as less advantageous.

I come home tired but full of joy and peace. I have connected with those around me during my day and I enjoy the afterglow of that connection. I can listen to the stories of my family and enjoy them. I have teenage boys, so these stories may be short on details and long on grunts. I smile inwardly since I was there at one time. I have empathy for their plight as not-fully-baked young men. After all, I can be gooey myself sometimes.

Bottom line: I’m full.

—–

Looking at the calendar and external circumstances, these days are virtually identical. But one is marked by the emptiness that comes from following a path of foolishness. We hate that word, but it applies to a life consumed by climbing ladders and chasing self-aggrandizing dreams. The other is marked by joy that comes from following a path of wisdom. We feel skittish about that word, but it applies to a life that is focused on descending ladders and serving others.

Many will think I’m crazy to aspire to live in the second scenario. I don’t blame you. Our world screams at us in ways obvious and subtle that the only way to happiness and wholeness is by getting ours, by taking care of #1, that living the second scenario is a mark of laziness or limp ambition. The problem is that our world is plain wrong. In fact, taking care of #1 is the root of most of our troubles. Nothing could be more ambitious than becoming the kind of person who can live full of service and humility and goodwill toward others without a heroic act of the will. Because it’s who they are on the inside, not a pose they’re striking on the outside.

We’re entering a season where the buzz of consumption is confused with the joy of self-giving. It’s a mistake not limited to one month of the year. We make that mistake all year round, usually in our everyday work.

Choose joy.

Are You Critical Thinkers… or Just Critical?

By: On September 22, 2015

You’ve probably been in a meeting where someone floats an idea that’s imperfect, maybe even half-baby calf
baked. They do it tentatively because they know the thought is emerging like a calf out of the womb, wobbly and likely to crash land onto the floor of the barn. It rests there, helpless, soaked in afterbirth, looking around the room with big brown eyes behind long, innocent eyelashes.

And then someone in the meeting gets up, walks over to that young idea, and smacks it across the face .

We call this critical thinking. We praise it. We hire for it. We promote it into the C-suite. We put it into a group of like-minded leaders and call it a strategy session.

And we wonder why strategy sessions and leadership team meetings often feel sterile, dull, and tense all at the same time.

Maybe it’s because we mix up critical thinking and having a critical spirit. Here’s the difference:

  • That idea might end up in here someday...

    That idea might end up in here someday…

    Critical thinking listens to an idea. It holds the idea up to the light like a gemstone being evaluated by a skilled jeweler. It tests and probes. It tells the truth but with an eye toward discovering potential. When it sees a flaw, its first impulse is to try to polish it, to take what’s good about the idea and improve upon it. It resists the urge to demolish and discard too quickly. Crucially, critical thinking is at least neutral toward the person who brought forth the idea. On good days, it is generous toward that person, perhaps even grateful that they had the courage to bring their idea out into the open. It not only allows the calf to stumble around. It puts its hands under the calf’s shoulders and helps it walk.

  • A critical spirit is different. Rather than focusing on the potential of the idea, it focuses onCynic its flaws, just waiting to pounce on it and destroy it. Worse yet, a critical spirit evaluates the person who brought it forth through the lens of the unfinished idea. Inwardly, a critical spirit says, “I have way too much to do to bother listening to this clown. I never thought she/he was so bright. That half-baked idea just confirmed my suspicions. I can’t wait until they stop yapping so that I can point out the flaws in the idea.” Outwardly, the answer to every question is no. Period. End of story.

Fill the room with critical spirits and you can watch the creative oxygen leave the room. At the very least, no one is really listening. After a little while, no one is really talking either. They’re just waiting for your so-called strategy session to be over so that they can go back to work.

Fill the room with critical thinkers and well, watch out. You can sense the creative energy buzz into the room. There will probably be laughter and curious looks and shy smiles. Confidence will grow in the group’s potential to crack through their collective mental barriers.

If work is a laboratory for the soul, then here’s your next experiment: shift from killing ideas to nurturing them and see what happens.

Noonday SunBe bright.

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A Purpose Wake-up Call

By: On August 10, 2010

Many of you probably heard about the killing of 10 NGO aid workers in Afghanistan late last week.  For most of us, this event was one more in a line of senseless deaths to which we are exposed on a regular basis. To our family, it was personal.

Tom Little, the optometrist who led the aid team, has been a family friend as long as I can remember.  While his family spent most of the last 35 years living in Afghanistan where Tom used his skills to bring eye care to rural Afghans, their US base was usually in the upstate NY town where I grew up.  In fact, their current home is less than a mile from the one where I spent my childhood.

As often happens when you’re a kid, I didn’t really know Tom and Libby very well myself.  They were grown-ups, after all. But they influenced my family in many ways nonetheless.  And in death, he got me thinking.

Most of us (me included), spend too much of our lives and work trying to achieve objectives that in the long run don’t mean a hill of beans.  Most of us spend too much energy envying others, plotting our political rise, and being ticked off with those around us.  Most of us get sucked into ourselves and our own stories.

I’m sure Tom had some of those tendencies too.  He was human.  But he had something else.  He was crystal clear on his purpose – to bring eyesight (and eventually other basic care like dentistry) to people who would never otherwise have access to it.  In life he had no glamor. In death he has great honor.  Through it all, he had vision of a different kind – and that vision fueled his efforts when nothing else would.

It makes me think – what purpose is driving me? What purpose is driving you? What purpose is driving your organization? Is it worth it? What could we do to make it more worthwhile?

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