How to Tell Your Leader the Truth Without Getting Fired

By: On May 15, 2018

Dear Team Member,


When it’s decision time on your team, what your organization most needs is the truth.  Sadly, the truth is usually in hiding, especially from your leader. 

You and your teammates know things about what’s going on with the business that your leader can’t hope to know.  You live closer to the customer, the competition, the code, the supplier base and the staff than she does. You hear the rumblings in the cubicles. She may have a better handle on the big picture, but you see what’s happening at ground level.

Now you’re headed into a big decision. You will spend countless hours examining the past, analyzing options, and trying to divine the future. You’ll scrub numbers. You’ll scratch your head. But will it be worth it?

It’s easy to blame your leader for the futility of this process. She’s temperamental and strong-willed. He’s aloof, Spock-like. She’s dictatorial. He’s tightly wound.

But before you indulge in self-righteous criticism that might render you useless to those around you, sit in the Leader’s chair for a moment.  He’s between a rock and hard place. The Rock is his boss – or worse yet, the board. The Hard Place is you.

First the Rock: Bosses and Boards have no senses of humor about missed numbers or wrong decisions. No matter how nonsensical it is, they lay the successes and failures of your company at the leader’s feet. Yes, this gives the leader both too much credit when things go well and too much blame when they go poorly. But it’s the world your leader lives in.

Next the Hard Place: That’s you and your colleagues. The Leader often feels lonely, like she’s the only one rowing in this boat.  Yes, she causes a lot of that loneliness because she grabs the oar right out your hands. But emotions, while not always reasonable, are forces to be reckoned with. Don’t let anyone fool you. Feelings dictate a lot more of how The Leader acts than anyone guesses.


Emotions affect you, too. You’ll be tempted to try all sorts of feeling-management tactics to handle the truth during this decision-making process.  See if you recognize any of these:

how to tell your leader the truth

The Duck and Cover – It’s easy to play defense when your leader is on a tear. Keep your head down. Don’t say too much. Peek over the edge of the bunker tentatively to see what it’s like out there, then hunker back down. Let’s call it what it is: self-preservation. It’s understandable, but truths will go unspoken that could alter the future of your organization for good.

how to tell your leader the truth


The Bank Shot – When the Leader isn’t listening well, it’s tempting to try to bank the truth off someone else. So in a meeting, you talk at someone else hoping that the Leader, perhaps with the shields down, will let your message sneak through. But what if the bank shot hits the rim and falls away harmlessly? What then?

how to tell your leader the truth


Turning Up the Volume – Maybe you’ve tried to be subtle and clever, but the message isn’t getting through. Maybe you’ve tried a bank shot or three and haven’t yet scored. Now you’re tempted to amp it up with the Leader. If she’s not listening, should you speak LOUDER and S-L-O-W-E-R? In reality, she might just think you’re treating her like an idiot.


You have better options if you want to give The Truth, something so essential to making the great decisions your organization needs if it’s going to make an impact.

  1. Put yourself in the leader’s shoes. Empathy helps others hear you. Think about what he’s trying to accomplish.  When it’s time to tell him a truth, help him see how ignoring this truth will actually prevent him from achieving his goals. Can he accomplish his goals despite ignoring this truth? OK, then show him how he’ll achieve his goals but at a significant personal cost. Either way, your attitude is that of a friend trying to help someone get important stuff done.
  2. Pick your spots. Even the most self-aware Leader has a limit on the difficult truths she can face at any one time. Maybe you have Ten Truths to share. On stone tablets.  Pick the top two. Making it manageable helps others hear you.
  3. Choose your setting. Do you want to raise hell? OK, push back against the Leader in a big, public setting. But if you want to maximize your chances of a positive reception, perhaps a quiet word in private or on a break from the meeting would work better. Sharing truth in safer places helps others hear you.
  4. Choose your words. A friend told me of an executive who was hesitating to make a bold strategic acquisition. The executive could tell that one of his key team members was troubled by the situation. “What do you think?” the executive asked. “I think you’re acting like a scared accountant,” the team member said boldly. Those eight words of truth shook the executive into action. Choosing words that strike home helps others hear you.

While simple enough, none of these things are easy.  It’s easy to duck and cover or blow your top.  But your organization needs The Truth if it’s going to rise as high and shine as brightly as possible. So gather your courage and give it to them. #TruthWins

bright companies

Be Bright.

Why Conflict Matters to Leadership Teams

By: On May 8, 2018

“I think my team is about here on the conflict scale,” the CEO said, drawing an x on the whiteboard.

why conflict matters leadership teams

We had been discussing his leadership team and how he needed them to perform at a higher level if the company was going to achieve its next level of performance and make the impact he dreamed of in the world. The topic of comfort with conflict had come up.

The CEO had put his mental model about conflict on the whiteboard, a simple continuum moving from a group that avoided conflict on one extreme to those itching for a fight on the other extreme. Intuitively, this CEO was arguing for a Golden Mean where people are transparent and comfortable with conflict. His company is based in the Midwest, so it came as no surprise that he placed the majority of his team in the conflict avoiding space on the line.

The question hanging over this whole conversation: why does a team’s comfort with conflict matter? Are people who value conflict just sociopaths disguised in business casual attire?

If you work together long enough, you’ll fight for a variety of reasons.

  • You may disagree on what to do. This is task conflict.
  • You may disagree on how to do something – or how someone should do their job. This is process or role conflict.
  • You may just dislike or distrust someone else. You may pick a fight for fun or to score political points. This is personal conflict.

All great teams welcome the first two kinds of conflict. They see them for what they are, tremendous opportunities to advance the shared agenda of the team. They understand what’s behind these conflicts and how to make them productive.

Productive teams know that task and process conflicts are decisions in disguise. Since a leadership team is the sum of its decisions, you could say that a leadership team is the sum of its conflicts.

Think about the decisions your leadership team has to make:

  • Where are we taking the organization? Where are we not taking the organization?
  • How high should we set our goals?
  • Where will we allocate precious resources to run today’s business and build tomorrow’s business at the same time?
  • What will we stop doing so that we have enough resources to pursue the best outcomes?
  • What do we stand for as a company? What are we willing to do even if it costs us because it’s simply who we are and what we believe?

You could probably fill in another 20 decisions your team faces regularly. You should expect differences of opinion on issues of this magnitude. In fact, it would be a sign of trouble if you didn’t have any tension about these questions.

Conflict has the potential to build or erode a team’s confidence in itself.

That’s because every person on the team is constantly asking themselves a few key questions about their participation on the team.

  • Am I in or out? Do people value me and my input as a colleague?
  • Do I have influence on this team or am I powerless?
  • Will I be able to make my best contribution as a result of this decision or will I be handcuffed?

When a leadership team does decision-making conflict well, team members answer those questions positively even if the decisions don’t always go their way. Do this regularly, and the team starts to feel as if they can take on any challenge successfully. People reinvest that little bit of extra effort into the shared work of the team. That, in turn, makes it more likely that the team is successful tackling the next decision. It’s what turns a group of individuals loosely held together by an org chart into a true team.

When decision-making and conflict break down, team members answer those same questions skeptically. Fail regularly, and the team starts to wonder if they can handle even the simplest decisions as a group. People hold back that extra effort required to make the shared work of the team successful. That, in turn, hampers the team’s ability to tackle the next challenge.

So try this experiment: List the last five decisions your leadership team faced. Note how much conflict you experienced. Flag how successful the decision process was in terms of reaching a decision supported by the team in a timely fashion. Notice how each decision affected the emotional commitment of team members.

And next time the tension is rising in your team meeting, ask yourself:

  • What decision is provoking this tension?
  • How do my teammates’ reactions show their level of confidence in our ability to handle this challenge?
  • In what way is this decision an opportunity to build or erode our confidence in this team?
  • How can I help engage the group in productive decision-making?

By all means, see conflict as decision-making in disguise. See it as an opportunity to stretch yourself personally and your team into the people – and team – you were created to be.


Be Bright.

How to Get the Truth When Facing a Big Decision – An Open Letter to the Boss

By: On April 19, 2018

Dear Boss,

If you’re facing a big decision, what you most need now is the truth.  Without the truth, you could easily foul that decision up.

Here’s the bad news: No one tells you the truth.

This may come as a surprise. You think you’re approachable, fair, and level-headed.  Trust me, you’re not… at least not in the minds of your people.

They remember that day a few months ago when you were a mini-Mount Vesuvius and erupted all over them.  They remember the time you heard something you didn’t like and they felt the arctic breeze blow across the conference table, over their shoulder, and down their back toward the place where the sun never shines.

You call yourself intense. They call you volatile. You say you like working with smart people. They say you hang with your cronies. You say you demand excellence. They say you’re a perfectionist.  You say you have an open door.  They say you stuff your ears with cotton.

So when you most need the straight truth, you’re left with something more obtuse.  People are playing each other like backboards, bouncing messages off each other or a subordinate or a consultant and hoping to get the ball to drop through your net.

Each time they open their mouths, they’re thinking about consequences. Rather than articulate, they calculate. Some go silent. Worse yet, others have learned what you want to hear and they’re happy to feed it to you even if it isn’t really true: “You’re right. Alex is a screw-up. And everyone else sees it too.”

Maybe most frightening, those who are most likely to give you a straight shot have stopped short of 100% candor.  They leave out the crucial 11%, quietly hoping you’ll fill in the blanks and covering their bets by not showing their whole hand.  Why risk retaliation when they’re not sure you’re going to go for it anyway?


How to Get the Truth When Facing a Big Decision


Before you shrug your shoulders and move on, think about the consequences for a minute:

  • Do you ever feel like you’re the one who is pulling hardest on your team? Do you ever get frustrated with the team for not owning the goals that you’ve set? Maybe at this point, they’re in the first stages of resignation.
  • Unless you’re a genius and can make your company’s dreams come true single-handedly, you’re going to need to attract and engage a team of highly talented people to turn the dream into a reality.  You can only play the “it didn’t work out with Mark because he wasn’t a good fit” card so many times. Then, smart people will start to realize that maybe it’s you. Good luck recruiting them then.

You’re probably surprised about this. You might be tempted to forward this note to your own boss or to a colleague.  Before you do, think for a second:

  • Am I getting the whole truth from those around me?
  • If not, how am I encouraging people to hold back?
  • What can I do to increase the level of candor?

Since you have the courage to ask those questions, you probably want to take action.

Here are a few ideas on how to get the truth when facing a big decision:

  • Choose a straight-talking person on your team and take her out for coffee. Ask her an open-ended question like, “What fact is obvious to everyone else but most people would think I miss?”
  • If you’re feeling really courageous, ask her, “What am I doing – or not doing – that has made people hesitant to tell me that truth?” Or, “What’s it been like to be on the receiving end of my leadership these past few months?”
  • It will be tempting to justify, explain, and defend. Don’t. Take notes. Ask curious follow-up questions like, “Tell me more.” Or, “What did you see that made you react that way?”
  • Thank your team member for her honesty.
  • Pay for the coffee.
  • Do something immediately to apply one thing you learned from the conversation. If you want people to keep telling you the truth, please don’t skip this step. If appropriate, publicize your effort to the team member who prompted the insight as a way of saying thanks.
  • Repeat.

Yes, this is vulnerable. It takes time. It takes humility, that most winsome leadership trait. But do it long enough, and the spigot of truth will flow freely. You and your team will make better decisions as a result. You’ll increase the chances that your team will achieve its goals and make an impact in the world. And that makes it all worthwhile.


Be Bright.


What Role Should a Leader Play in a Planning Meeting?

By: On April 12, 2018

Have you ever seen leaders play one of these roles in a planning meeting?

  • The Lecturer – In meeting 1, you’re locked in a planning session and the leader is controlling everything.  She says too much and says it too strongly. The rest of the leadership team starts to wonder why they even showed up. They politely go along, acting like they agree even when they have reservations.  It’s a charade. Everyone is just waiting for it to be over so that they can get back to real work.
  • The Passive Enigma – In meeting 2, you’re locked in a planning session and the leader is strangely passive.  You know he has opinions. You hear them in private all of the time. But in an effort to “not dominate the conversation,” the leader has completely zipped and padlocked his lips.  The rest of the group politely fills the air-time, but you wonder when you will find out what’s really going to happen. And you wonder who stole the real boss and sent the mannequin.

Leaders face a dilemma when they involve their teams in decision-making.

I hear their confusion almost every time I lead a planning session. They quietly approach me as we’re about to kick off the planning meeting and say things like:

  • “OK, I’m going to try hard not to say anything today.”
  • “What role should I play today?”
  • “Don’t let me dominate the meeting.”
  • And my favorite: “Where should I sit?”

I understand the dilemma. On the one hand, who wants to be that domineering boss who monopolizes the session and chokes the creativity of the team? On the other hand, who wants to be the lame boss who allows chaos to swamp a valuable planning session?

Here’s the advice I almost always give to leaders about their planning session roles:

Ask yourself, “What does this session need from me right now?”

For instance:

leaders role planning meeting ask questions

1. Ask questions:

If you see a team member who hasn’t contributed for a while – and who you know has strong opinions or good ideas – draw them out. Ask a simple question like, “Sherry, we haven’t heard from you on this issue and I’m pretty sure you have ideas about it. Would you share your thoughts?”


leaders role planning meeting provide boundaries

2. Provide boundaries:

If the team is straying into an area that you know is going to be a waste of time or if they’re debating something that has already been decided, provide boundaries. “Gang, I appreciate the conversation. Something you don’t know is that we’ve already decided as an organization not to pursue that market. So let’s redirect our conversation over to these other issues that are still open for debate.”



leaders role planning meeting draw out differences

3. Draw out differences:

There should be differences of opinion on your team. Instead of allowing them to lurk beneath the surface, get them on the table and crystallize them for all to see. “I’m hearing three different points of view on this topic. Let me see if I can articulate them and then we’ll debate the merits of each.”



4. Enforce ground rules:leaders role planning meeting enforce the rules

In any contact sport like planning meetings, fouls will be committed. Part of the leader’s job is to be sure that the team plays the game fairly. “OK, I just want to remind everyone that it’s fine to disagree. But we cannot allow disagreement to get personal or to let disagreement stop us from getting to a solution that we’re all committed to acting on. So Rob and Gina, let’s try that conversation again and see if we can get to a better outcome.”


leaders role planning meeting manage the tempo5. Manage tempo:

It’s an art to know when to slow down the conversation and dig into a topic, and when to call time and get the group to move forward. As a leader, you often have a better read on that call than most. “Alright, it sounds to me like we need to close on this issue. Here’s what I think we need to do…”


leaders role planning meeting let it run6. Let it run:

Sometimes, the best thing to do is… nothing.  The team is wrestling with an important issue and they’re doing it well. Yes, it’s messy. Yes, it’s taking time. No, you’re not quite sure where it will land. But it’s a substantive topic worth the effort. Sit back. Watch. Ask yourself, “What does this situation need?” And if the conversation needs nothing, give it nothing.

All of these options look like active engagement and guidance without domination.  That’s probably what the planning session needs most from you.


Light and Height company

Be Bright.

How To Be an Ally Without Being a Chump

By: On February 7, 2018

A while back, I wrote a piece arguing that we should act like Allies instead of Critics with our colleagues. I know you may have been thinking, “But you don’t work with this one scumbag at our company. There’s no way he’d be an Ally. And if I act like an Ally with him, I’ll end up just being a Chump.”

This might end very badly…

No doubt, there are special cases where a particular colleague defies your attempts to be an Ally. They may not have it in their mental models that being an ally is even possible in a work setting. They may believe that work is a big reality TV show and that they have no real choice but to survive at your expense.

Even in this situation, you do have options besides reverting to being a jerk at work:

  • Embrace the challenge. You can view this situation as a workout for your soul. We all know that we learn more from hardship than from comfort. Perhaps having this Critic in your life is a way for you to learn patience, the ability to unhook yourself from their critique, and the skill of not retaliating.
  • Put yourself in the other person’s shoes. Ask your brain the question, “What might lead a reasonable person to act this way?” There are usually multiple possible explanations, not all of them sinister (see Hanlon’s Razor). Even if you’re not sure the other person is reasonable, this question forces your mind to soften. Soft minds have a better chance of making good calls than brittle minds.
  • Ignore the hostility. It’s amazing what you can accomplish by doing nothing. You can defuse the Critic’s negative attempts to influence or at least be wise to their methods.  William Ury, a master negotiator, tells a story about a time when a political leader spent the first hour of their meeting berating him and the other side for perceived wrongs of the past. Ury said, “I take your candor as a sign of friendship. Thank you for telling me what you think.” This immediately defused the situation because he sidestepped the leader’s attempt to control the tone of the meeting.
  • Engage in supportive confrontation. Originally described by David Bradford and Allen Cohen, this is an approach where you try to help the other person see that what they’re doing won’t get them what they want – or at best, it will get them what they want at great personal cost. The key here is that you’re saying to them (and yourself) that the easy thing to do is to avoid this conversation but that you care too much about the work you have to do together to take the easy way out. Notice you don’t have to care about them personally, although it wouldn’t hurt.
  • Enlist the power of the group. Critics lose their power when the rest of the group ignores or counterbalances their critique. Try creating an atmosphere where the silent majority is drawn out to balance the vocal critic. If you try this, attempt to provide the Critic with a bridge back to the group. Otherwise they’re bound to get more isolated and combative when they sense that the group is immune to their attempts to influence.
  • Collaborate with influencers. You can escalate the issue to leaders who may be able to influence the other person or even remove them from the situation. Of course, you’re now raising the stakes. Be sure to attempt at least one of the approaches above before escalating the issue. Any savvy leader will ask you, “What did you try already to address this situation?” Have a solid answer or risk just looking like a whiner.
  • Leave the room. If all else fails and a Critic is persistently affecting key parts of your work environment, you may be able to find ways to remove yourself from the situation. In extreme situations, this may mean quitting your job. More often, you may be able to limit or eliminate interaction with this person in your current role.

One last thing: I’m definitely not saying that anyone should put up with abusive colleagues or that a difficult person is the same as exploitive and abusive behavior. Let’s call those things what they are: completely unacceptable.

But if your colleague is temperamental or troublesome instead of exploitive or abusive, these may be strategies you can use to deal with them while becoming the person you were created to be. And that would make the hardship worth something.

Be Bright

Critics and Allies

By: On November 28, 2017

If you’re a leader, you’re going to spend the vast majority of your days in meetings. Leaders spend most of their time with others wrestling with tough issues that couldn’t be solved elsewhere and creating a future that no one person could achieve alone.

So, quick: think about the next meeting on your calendar with colleagues at work. When you walk into that room, what will you encounter?

If you’re like too many organizations, that room will be packed with critics. They’ll be impatiently waiting for you to shut your big yap so that they can tell you what’s wrong with your ideas. They’ll relish playing devil’s advocate as if the devil needs any help these days. For every point you make, they will bring a counterpoint.

Even in a room of critics, you can be an ally

If you want to kill a meeting dead, follow the Critic’s Creed:

  • Indulge fantasies of punching, spitting, or escaping the meeting.  You’re activating the reptilian part of your brain. It mostly wants to survive and sit in the sun. It’s guaranteed to escalate or freeze out any real conversation.
  • Hide what you really think and want. This will make everyone wonder what your real agenda is. Your colleagues will watch their backs, their heads on a swivel. Which you think is fun to watch.
  • If you do say something, blur the distinction between data you see and how you interpret the data. Mash it all up so that people exhaust themselves trying to figure out how you got there!?!? That will wear them down and get them back to swinging their verbal fists. Which is what they always wanted to do anyway.
  • Spend a lot of time arguing about who owns what responsibility. Everyone knows deep down that these arguments are really about who gets credit when things go well or blame when they crash and burn. In case they got lax, the self-preservation instinct triggered by this topic will get everyone watching their backs again. #awesome

Critics practice this creed because they’re afraid of losing a zero-sum game they’ve invented in their own minds. They can’t see an alternative of working with others instead of against them. Unconsciously, Critics have adopted the belief system of what Wharton professor, Adam Grant calls Takers.  You don’t need me to tell you that if your culture is dominated by Critics, it will kill innovation and stifle the development of your next generation of contributors. Who would dare trot out a vulnerable new idea or stick their necks out to lead if they’re going to get slaughtered by the Critics?

A room packed with Allies is very different. Don’t get me wrong, Allies aren’t soft. They’re hard as nails on the problem you’re working on together. But they’re soft on the people. Instead of sitting across from you, arms crossed, ready to shoot down your ideas, they’re sitting next to you saying, “Tell me more. I didn’t see it that way. Maybe together, we can make something better happen.”

If you want to bring a meeting alive, follow the Ally’s Action Plan:

  • Monitor what’s going on in your mind, especially your reactions to others. If you find yourself getting angry or wanting to avoid this conversation, use that reaction as a trigger to ask your brain a question that the reptilian brain can’t answer. Something like, “what might lead a rational person like this colleague to hold that point of view?” Give the idea the benefit of the doubt, and forget about whether or not the colleague is rational. It’s an insignificant consideration.
  • Reveal what you think and what you really want and maybe even why you want it. Critics hide what they want to keep everyone off balance. Instead, put your cards on the table because you trust that you’re Allies and that there’s a really good chance you can reach an agreement or a better idea.
  • When you speak, use the four magic words. This will help others separate what you see from what you believe. It will also help them build on your ideas.
  • Align yourselves on the shared outcome you’re trying to achieve and how each party in the room can contribute to shared success. Spend extra time understanding where different parties must cooperate well and quizzing each other on what each of you must do to make the other successful. Make realistic and value-enhancing agreements – and then deliver on them scrupulously.  

It’s much easier to be a Critic than to be an Ally. It’s much easier to complain about the lousy meetings you have to endure than do your part to make them really productive. If you’re an Ally, you get on the same page faster. You agree to action faster. You learn and adjust faster. You do all of it with less wasteful friction and more creative tension. Put a bunch of Allies together in a culture that values that sort of constructive behavior and you’ll end up with more creative output and more commitment to everyone keeping promises.

And yes, if you’re an aspiring Ally stuck in a Critic culture, you can still make a difference. You have your own sphere of influence. You can find other Allies and do everything possible to work with them. You can model Ally behavior knowing that some current and potential Allies will find you.

At the very least, you will become one of those people about whom others in the organization will say, “She’s a tremendous colleague. We do our best work and feel best about ourselves when she’s involved.” That has potential for influencing others to come out of the shadows and join you.


Be Bright

Tags: , , , ,

Four Magic Words To Make Your Next Meeting Productive

By: On November 7, 2017

You probably hate meetings. But if you’re a leader, the fact is that you spend most of your time in meetings. This isn’t going to end. Stop lamenting that you want to get “real work” done. Most of your real work happens in a meeting. Which means you need to become an expert at how to have good conversations, mostly about understanding and solving big hairy problems. The easy challenges get dealt with elsewhere.

And yet most business conversations are horrible. I know. I spend my life trying to facilitate them. They’re lousy at least partly because most of us don’t know the four magic words. Here they are:

  • “Here’s what I see…” – Listen to your colleagues in the next meeting. How often do they separate the inputs they’re taking in from the opinions they’ve formed? I’d guess not very often. Instead, many people make assertions which lead to counter-assertions which lead to rabbit trails and defensiveness. Eventually, the meeting’s time runs out and you’re saved by the bell. Except that there’s been no progress on the issues and you probably like and respect each other a little less. So start by clearly stating the inputs that shape your perceptions. Start by saying, “Here’s what I see…” and specifically calling out where you got your data. “Here’s what I see” statements should be followed with:
    • Performance data and trends
    • Outside sources or research
    • Direct observation
    • Even anecdotes. No they won’t carry as much weight as data but at least you’re separating inputs from outputs.

Come to think of it, that leads to four more words.

  • “Here’s what I think…” – Your perceptions ought to lead to some conclusions or at least a few hypotheses. You’re largely paid to think, so you’re expected to draw conclusions. You may be anywhere on the continuum of certainty from hunch to conclusion. Even that is useful to share since it tells your colleagues how firmly you hold your beliefs.

Since your perceptions are limited and your thought process may be flawed, I guess this could lead to another four words.

  • “I could be wrong…” – When you pair conviction (“Here’s what I think”) with humility (“I could be wrong”), you remind yourself and others that you’re not God. Which is never a bad thing to remember. You acknowledge that every great idea is born immature and needs help to grow up. You signal that you want others to join in. The music of real conversation begins to play.

Snap! This means maybe there’s yet another four-word set to get us to a great meeting:

  • “What do you see?…” – Now you’ve turned what could have been a monologue into a conversation. You’re dancing instead of boxing. Watch out. Something creative may happen. Worst case scenario, colleagues will understand your view and will perhaps feel free to agree instead of feeling drawn to a stalemate.

These magic words simply put an open mind into action. And open minds trump closed ones when you want to get things done.

So maybe your next day of back to back meetings doesn’t have to be miserable. Maybe you can help those meetings become productive, creative, and even *gasp* fun. It just takes four simple words…

Be Bright.

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.

Are You Starring in Leader Theater or Are You Building a Team?

By: On October 17, 2017

Karen sits in her office, slightly baffled. She’s in the middle of a major change initiative designed to dramatically improve her company’s cost structure. All along, she has been out in front of this initiative, explaining it, selling it, cheering for it. She made promises to the board.

But the results are stuck. Instead of moving up and to the right, the trend lines are flat. She walks into the executive board room and sits at the seat unofficially reserved for The Big Cheese. Around the table are key members of her organization: the CMO, CIO, VP of Sales, and head of operations. Everyone is smiling and nodding as her chief of staff opens the session.

And then this happens…

What’s about to happen is predictable if not particularly productive. It’s Leader Theater complete with assigned seats, scripts, and an open caffeine bar.

In this highly staged art form, the team members carefully tell The Big Cheese exactly what they want to hear. Sure, it would give the crowd a bit of a buzz if someone broke from role or fluffed their lines. But that’s hard to do. The group has rehearsed this bit of stagecraft for a long time. They’ve studied their characters so much that they’ve actually started to become these characters. Besides, everyone knows that you shouldn’t tell your boss the truth at work. (Or should you?)

You might be tempted to think that the team members are cowards. I don’t think so. I think they’re smart. They know there’s a script.  Big Cheeses love it when you follow the script. They can get a little testy when you don’t.  Here are the cue cards people see the Big Cheese lay out.

  • It starts with the entrance and place on the stage. They sit at the end of the board room table. If they’ve watched too many mobster movies, they choose a seat with their back to a wall, preferably where they can see the door. There will be no surprises.  
  • The Big Cheese asks questions like, “Don’t you think people are really on board with the direction we’re heading as a company?” These questions have obvious right answers. Given the power difference and the public forum, who is going to take The Big Cheese on?
  • The Big Cheese talks without listening. It’s clear that there is a stump speech that is meant to pump the troops up. All visible signs in the past five meetings using that speech have been positive. So The Big Cheese stays in safe territory, hitting key points, watching the heads nod like a table full of bobbleheads.

In the unlikely event they make a subtle appearance at the show, The Big Cheese resolutely ignores reactions like fear, sadness, and anger. Privately, The Big Cheese is not quite sure what to do with these primal emotions other than ignore them so that things don’t slow down and get messy. Lord knows, they have enough mess in their life already. Better to avert the eyes.

This script, all too familiar to many of us, is just a symptom of a leader who has forgotten a fundamental organizational reality. My friends Eugenio and Kevin from Quarto Consulting call this phenomenon The Cloudline. Like a tall mountain, any organization will feel different depending on where you sit in the organizational structure. Those at the top are often above the cloudline. Things are clear. The sun shines. Yes the air is thin but you can see for-e-ver. Farther down the mountain, there’s weather – clouds, rain, mud. If you’re lucky, you can see your hand in front of your face.

When The Big Cheese refuses to descend into the weather – to slow down, to notice, to be curious – she’s missing out on the reality that most of the organization experiences each day. She may enjoy the sunshine, but she’s going to be pretty lonely up there. It will be hard to get things done. Once she leaves the room, everyone will exit stage left and go back to everyday life, pleased that they crushed that little scene of Leader’s Theater.

This is how so many leaders get nasty surprises. They leave the room thinking everyone is on board only to find out later that people were just reading from the script. Too many strategies die as a result. Too many organizations make less of a dent on the world. That, to paraphrase a certain Big Cheese, is #sad.

In case you’re feeling a little smug right now, wondering if you can cleverly forward this post to a Big Cheese in your world without getting fired, pause for just a moment. Chances are, you’re a Big Cheese in some arena of your workplace or personal life. Maybe, like me, you recognize a little Cheesiness in your own approach and behavior.

If so, the prescription is simple, though not easy:

  1. Slow down and come down below the cloudline. You can’t descend safely without reducing speed. Next time you’re leading or attending a meeting as a Big Cheese, take a deep breath. Remind yourself that speed kills.  Think through who is going to be there. Put yourself in their shoes and ask, “How would I see this situation – and me – if I were in their place?” Based on what you discover, be ready to answer the normal questions they probably have about you and this situation as a way to open up the interaction. It’s amazing what a little empathy can do.
  2. Notice what you’re noticing. As you interact with others, take snapshots of the scene. Look for things that stick out to you. Then look one more time for things you might have missed on first inspection – a person’s expression, their fidgeting when you say certain things. Avoid judging, fixing, or even pointing out what you see. Just log it away.
  3. Be curious. Ask at least one question for every statement you make. Make them questions that do not have obvious answers. Questions like, “Help me understand what you’re seeing.” or “What would have to be true for that idea to be truly great?” are curious questions. When a response signals that another person may care more about a topic, gently dig into it simply to understand. Yes, this means you may have to wait minutes, hours, even days before you give your counterpoint to their point. That will be time well spent.

This may feel like it’s going to slow you down. But it’s almost always another example of the old wisdom, “When you slow down, you go faster.” Because avoiding Leader Theater will allow your team members to show you things you may otherwise have missed. Those perspectives are likely key to your organization’s success. That’s the kind of show we all want more of.

Be Bright.

Tags: , ,

Is Your Team a Momentum-Maker or Momentum-Killer?

By: On September 18, 2017

Ben has a problem. He just took over the leadership of a company that until recently had been on a bad losing streak. Two years ago, the board brought in a turnaround artist who used a combination of hard work and brute force to arrest the decline.  As a result, a large portion of the current leadership team is new to the company. The good news is that they think of themselves as a collection of winners, pulled together with various experience to reverse their company’s fortunes. You can feel it in the nervous tension in the group. The bad news is that they aren’t winning as often as they should.

Ben thinks through what to do in his first few months as CEO. He knows his team members want to get moving, to get things done, to create results. Their instinct is to do something. Ben knows the typical tools used to get an organization rolling; restructuring, incentives, public floggings, optimistic road shows. He’s skeptical that these moves will work here. He’s no rookie. He’s seen what happens when you try to manipulate an organization. Smart people check out or become completely self-focused just when you need them to care about customers, the company, and most important each other.

While there are structural issues to address, Ben’s gut tells him that he needs to get his team together and do something, but it’s something that they’re going to hate: work on how they interact as a team. Without this, they can restructure all they want but the magic still won’t be there. He can imagine the thought bubble above the heads of many team members: “A kumbaya session? What does any of this have to do with getting results for our company?” He gets it. It’s a thought he remembers having at points in his career too.

From hard experience, Ben knows that there is often a strong connection between how his team works and the results they’re going to get. When his past teams were able to work through challenges without having it get personal, they could tear apart a miss in the last quarter’s numbers without damaging drama. When those past teams carried relational baggage, even deciding where to hold the next year’s sales meeting got sporty. Forget about dealing with the really tough issues that drive performance. You could almost feel the wind come out of those organizations’ sails.

Ben knows a secret that many leaders don’t grasp:  Leadership teams are responsible for managing one of the most elusive commodities in the world: momentum.

Momentum is the degree to which your people sense progress, excitement, and confidence in what’s happening. You know you have momentum when people are going the extra mile for each other, watching each other’s backs, and resiliently handling setbacks. You know it’s missing when everyone is looking out for themselves and maybe looking for a job in their spare time.

Momentum is either working for you or it’s working against you. If it’s working against you, you probably feel like you’re running in quicksand while banging your head against the wall. Which is a lot of fun if you’re into that kind of thing.

Sure, you can fake momentum. That’s called hype. It works for little while but it’s not sustainable. Once exposed, hype gives your credibility – and the company’s – a mortal wound, after which you will need to brush up your resume because the ship will likely sink.

Here’s how leadership teams – and how they work together (or don’t) – affect organizational momentum. This explanation builds on thinking from Mike Blansfield via Marvin Weisbord who first articulated these observations. Hats off to my colleague Mark Demel for making the ideas visual.


Like many things in life, momentum works in a self-reinforcing cycle.

  1. In an organization that’s stuck in neutral or going backward, the trigger event for another trip through the cycle is usually some sort of result. Usually it’s a crappy result. Profits are down, quality is poor, maybe a video of a customer being dragged out of your place of business after losing teeth at the hands of your staff goes viral. You get the picture.
  2. This trigger forces you to examine how things are getting done, or perhaps not getting done. As a leadership team, you need to look at plans, systems, processes, policies, structures or people. Probably a little bit of all of that. You’re on the hunt for the real issue.  In itself, this is not bad. In fact, a really good team does this well and gets to the root of the issue as quickly and deeply as possible resulting in useful course corrections. But pity the leader whose team has poo-poo’d the human stuff. Because right now, at this moment of trying to optimize or fix the business, that willful ignorance will be exposed.  Just try searching for ways to fix a business – especially one in any sort of crisis – when there isn’t a solid level of trust, openness, and shared understanding. Get ready for some totally awesome Leadership Team Theater as team members posture, attack, defend, and hide. You’ll be able to hand out Emmy awards but the problems will be obscured behind the drama.
  3. That’s because every team member is constantly asking a few questions about their participation in their leadership team. Yes, that includes your leadership team.
    • Am I in or out around here?–  Do people accept me and include me? Do I have to watch my back or do they have my back?
    • How are power and control handled here? – Team members often loathe the fact that they aren’t in total control when in a team, especially leadership team members who often crave control of their own destinies. The real question is who wields power and do I have any influence over what happens here?
    • How are skills and resources handled? – Everyone wants to make a contribution. At least everyone who deserves to be on your team. They wonder whether they’ll be given the resources so that they’re able to make their best contribution. If not, talented team members want to take their skills elsewhere.
  4. When leadership team members can’t answer those questions positively, cue the Leadership Team Theater. Your fundamental business problems will go unsolved. Maybe there will be a cosmetic fix, but nothing that’s going to reverse the momentum in any long-term way.

That cycle of failure leaves team members – and the rest of your organization – deflated. They’re less confident in the ability of the group to make good things happen. They’re less confident in their own ability to influence the group to make good things happen. Momentum sags.

But flip that story around.

  1. Imagine a leadership team that invests in the human side of their work together. Ideally, they’ll do this before they’re under the gun although there’s nothing like a crisis to focus the mind. Imagine they work hard to answer the perpetual team questions positively so that each team member can say:
    • I’m in. People value me and my contribution.
    • I can influence things around here.
    • I can make a contribution here. I have the resources to do my best work.
  2. They can address the fundamental drivers of the business with gusto. Trust, openness, and a common understanding of where we’re going – and why it matters – are going to reign. No, team members do not have to be best friends. But they buy into the team’s core purpose and their place in it.
  3. Do that long enough and deep enough and results start to improve.
  4. Pretty soon, the team has a growing confidence in the collective and in their own individual abilities to get stuff done.

That team is going to have some serious momentum. That team is going to leave its positive mark on the world. Ben wants that team and I’ll bet all of us want to be on that team.

What’s the next step you can take to build momentum on your team?

Be Bright.

Tags: , , , , ,
Site design: Sirvatka Creative Services | Developed by: My Virtual Service