Whenever we hear “think outside the box”, especially in times of real distress (Covid not withstanding), it is almost like fingernails on a chalkboard, and yet, admittedly, I have used it myself. “Think outside the box” is an overused rally cry for fresh ideas. It gives permission for innovative thinking and creative solutions. However, in a workplace culture where “fitting in” and “not rocking the apple cart” are generally prized, and failure is not allowed, suddenly thinking outside that darn box can be a challenge. Especially in times when many are worried about holding on to their jobs. One solution is to call on your positive emotions.

Positive emotions can help you move from not upsetting the cart to thinking perhaps the cart isn’t even necessary. In her 1998 study, Barbara Fredrickson formulated the “broaden-and-build” theory. In it, she explained that negative emotions provide a useful evolutionary function to narrow our thoughts and action repertoire when we feel threatened. Likewise, positive emotions, she explained, also serve an evolutionary function by broadening our scope of attention, cognition, and action. In short, positive emotions provide choices in how we react to opportunities.

When we speak of evolutionary functions, we tend to think about individuals, but Fredrickson (2003) suggests that positive emotions can transform organizations through what she called “upward spirals.” Upward spirals occur when positive emotions spur the broadening of how we habitually think and act. This helps build perpetual resources and, in turn, promotes more positive emotions. We feel good about feeling good. And feeling good allows us to be more flexible and creative in our thinking. And being more flexible and creative allows us to achieve innovative solutions. And so we spiral upwards.

Thinking outside the box cannot happen only on the individual level. Organizations that want “outside thinkers” must have an atmosphere that allows creative thinking to thrive. In part, this is achieved by fostering employee engagement; employee engagement generally elicits positive emotions. Another step is to have management lead by example. When employees see management upending traditional approaches to challenges, those employees know it is valued. And for it to be valued, outside thinking cannot be solicited only in times of crisis. Create a culture of flexibility and creativity that encourages broad thinking at all levels all the time.

Meanwhile, I propose we keep the intent, but get rid of the expression. Instead of thinking outside the box, why don’t we urge people to “Think openly.” Or “Solve differently.” Or “Use your positive emotions.”

And we know self care is an important component of generating positive emotions, in ourselves and in others, check out this great NYT article from a week ago: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/10/07/health/laurie-santos-covid-happiness.html?referringSource=articleShare


Fredrickson, B.L. (1998). What good are positive emotions? Review of General Psychology, 2(3), 300-319.
Fredrickson, B.L. (2003). Positive emotions and upward spirals in organizational settings. In K. Cameron, J. Dutton, & R. Quinn (Eds.), Positive Organizational Scholarship: Foundations of a New Discipline (pp. 163-175). San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Based on a blog by North of Neutral coach Dr. Carolyn Mathews, positive psychologist and Board Certified Coach

by renita kalhorn

From the time we start school around the age of five, we learn very quickly that there’s only one right answer: 2 + 2 = 4.  And it pays to know what it is. Our identity gets increasingly wrapped up in knowing the right answer and we’re conditioned by society that we’re just supposed to know, in no uncertain terms, everything from what career to choose and who to marry, to what to say to in a difficult conversation with a partner or what’s going to happen in the board meeting.

And even though we live in the most uncertain, unpredictable time in the history of mankind ever, nobody tells us that it’s okay to not know. So we all walk around pretending that we do know and hoping we won’t get busted.

As usual, Dilbert knows what I’m talking about.


(Just to be clear, I’m not talking about fact-based knowledge. When the CFO gets on an earnings call with analysts, he better know what the current financials are — but he doesn’t have to know where the economy is going to be in nine months and exactly how that will affect the company’s sales in Asia. We want our doctor to know how to treat a common condition — but she doesn’t have to know exactly the cause of a rare combination of symptoms and the surefire way to treat them.)

The thing is, being in a place where we think we should know spits us out of the present moment. To be wholly present, we have to be willing to step into the unknown, where we’re not trying to control our future based on past experiences. That’s when we plug into the big database in the sky, get access to Infinite Intelligence. That’s what happened with Einstein: after he had his flash of insight into the theory of relativity, he then had to go back and learn the math to explain what he intuitively understood.

So here are some things I know about “not knowing:”

  • Slow down and shut up. Ask the universe/God/whatever higher power you believe in for guidance — and then pay attention. The answer might come in a song, a movie, a book or an old friend that you haven’t seen for awhile.
  • Get used to the feeling of unfamiliar. Our body craves the adventure of the unknown. A photographer friend says he loves that feeling of butterflies in his stomach when he’s on a shoot that tells him: “I’m about to do something creative.”
  • Acknowledge what you do and don’t know. Even the most prickly conversation will go better if you say: “Here’s what I know based on the information I have. You have different information than I do so I’m curious to hear your point of view.”

It’s not “all or nothing.” You don’t know have to know every single step on the path before taking action. In fact, you can just get excited about finding out what the next step is.

Really, it’s okay to not know.

by carolyn mathews

(posted in 2011, our readers rated this as one of our all time favorite posts so here it is again)

Mention a 360-degree feedback process to those who have experienced it and you will likely witness the rolling of eyes, apparent cringing, or the telling of personal horror stories. This is what I witnessed almost across the board when I told people my dissertation topic. (For the record, its title is, “Enhancing the 360-Degree Feedback Process: A Strengths-based Approach.”) If you read this blog, you likely work in an upper-management/executive position within your organization. Just as likely, you have participated in a 360-degree feedback process, as both a rater for someone else or as the person being rated (the “ratee”). I have been through the process myself. So, it was with some trepidation that I signed up for the Center for Creative Leadership’s (CCL) Assessment Certification Workshop.

My trepidation was borne from my skepticism regarding the process, not from the assessment products offered by CCL. Research shows in many cases, 360s are mishandled from the start in terms of stated purpose, accountability, and psychometric properties. I am happy to report that CCL addresses all of these concerns in their training of consultants, coaches, and HR professionals. Indeed, according to a colleague in the class who experienced the CCL products and process within his organization, when CCL professionals are brought in to run a 360-degree feedback process, they emphasize and explain these elements before any assessments start.

Okay, so having established some 360 ground rules, we know to declare a clear purpose to all participants (preferably developmental as opposed to administrative). We also know that accountability on the part of the raters, the ratee, and the organization is crucial for employees to view it as something from which they will benefit. Further, we recognize that a psychometrically sound instrument, one that has been validated and reflects the organization’s values, strategies and goals, is crucial for the success of this process. But what is a positive psychology coach like me supposed to do with a process that traditionally focuses on deficits rather than strengths?

The 360-degree feedback process is often used as part of an annual appraisal process, and as such, there is a tendency for organizations and managers – and the ratees themselves – to concentrate on deficits while virtually ignoring strengths. Strengths represent what is “right” or going well for the employee. Therefore, we tend to pay little attention to these non-problems. Instead, there is collective focus on what’s wrong, also known as (with a positive spin) “room for improvement,” or “opportunities.” No matter what we call this deficit target, research by the Gallup organization shows that the greatest opportunities for success come not from focusing on what’s wrong, but by emphasizing what’s right.

Does this mean as managers, HR professionals, or coaches we must ignore a person’s lack of skills or behavioral concerns? I don’t believe so. The use of positive psychology in the workplace is not meant to suggest we can ignore problems in favor of the positive. Positive psychology in the workplace provides a holistic approach; one that asserts the “biggest bang for the buck” comes from the acknowledgment and use of strengths as a way to build creativity and collaboration, solve problems, and even address areas those “opportunities” for improvement.

So how can you incorporate a strengths-based approach into a traditional 360-degree feedback process?

Ongoing management: Address problem areas immediately, instead of waiting for this annual feedback process. This is the responsibility of management, and one that often slides further down the “to-do” list. No one likes to be the “heavy.” However, if issues are addressed when current, it will appear more relevant to your direct report than a mention months later in the comments section of the 360 questionnaire.

Before the 360-degree feedback process: Assure your team that the purpose of the 360 process is for developmental purposes (not administrative) and will be considered along with other information gleaned throughout the year.

During the feedback session: Use the feedback related to strengths to discuss how your direct reports can rectify problem areas. This helps align the solution needed for the organization with the person’s personal values, which may result in longer-lasting change. In addition, ask them to imagine ways that using one or two strengths exclusively may turn it into a weakness. A balanced approach is best.

After the feedback: Collaborate with your direct reports on their development plans, based in part on the feedback they received. Ask them to suggest goals that not only relate to the organization’s overall mission, but also will incorporate their personal strengths. My research shows an integral link between elements of positive psychology, positive organizational behavior, and a successful 360-degree feedback process. Adding a strength-based component puts that personal stamp on the goal, making it meaningful.

Ultimately, the 360-degree feedback process is an efficient way to track someone’s development, how well they play with others, and to help direct their developmental goals. And, it can be used in a way that emphasizes positive opportunities for success.

by jennifer bezoza


A great manager does many things well, including offering her people the right type of feedback to encourage, stretch and/or expand their thinking when they need it most.   Despite the common perception that positive feedback is the best motivator, research discussed in an HBR blog focuses on how both positive and negative feedback can be effective for motivating and enhancing performance, depending on the individual and her level of proficiency in a job.  The research, by Stacey Finkelstein (Columbia University) and Ayelet Fishbach (University of Chicago), dissects the function of negative and positive feedback and also when and with whom it will work best.

Positive feedback, the research shows, increases peoples’ commitment to their work, by enhancing confidence.  In contrast,  negative feedback provides valuable information on how to improve.  For individuals who are new in a job and less confident, positive feedback is likely to help one remain positive and comfortable in facing a new set of challenges.   For the seasoned expert, negative or constructive feedback is more likely to give one unexpected insight on how to make incremental improvements, and with a track record of success, one is less likely to be discouraged or offended.

For one of my  executive coaching clients, regular delivery of feedback to employees—particularly constructive feedback—has not been something that has come naturally, even as his team and responsibilities have continued to grow in size and scope over the years.  As a personal development strategy, this leader decided he wanted to incorporate a “feedback model” into regular one-on-ones with employees.

As we spoke recently, a month after setting about this new practice, I heard my client being critical of his ability to implement the feedback model consistently.  As we dug deeper, however, it became apparent that just by adding the topic of “feedback” to his agendas, he was becoming more observant of his employees in both the big and the small ways; while he may not have been executing against the feedback model in the way he envisioned, he was communicating more frequently with his team about what was and was not working, and he also was tuning into each individuals’ behaviors and results in a more nuanced way.

This also made him more reflective about the quality and quantity of feedback he was giving to each of his employees.  He noticed, for example, that he was able to give much more concrete feedback in domains where he had worked previously and to his credit, that he was spending more time with employees who were newer in their roles and dealing with detailed processes and systems that were being challenged by expedient growth in the organization.

For employees who were more experienced and high performing in their roles in functions less familiar to the leader, however, he was challenged as to how to offer value for his direct reports.  Should he gain more knowledge in this domain where he had not worked previously to offer that necessary constructive feedback? Should he bring in outside experts who can help them stretch and further refine their craft? Or should he assume the role of advisor and coach who asks forwarding questions and helps his star performer reflect on the bigger picture without judgment?

All of these are potential directions for this manager, and ones he is considering, all because he has put employee feedback on his list of reoccurring agenda items.

In closing, this experience was a good reminder that a model is purely that – it’s a template of what can work, not a prescribed approach. Relationships and conversations are just too complicated to be limited by formulas.  On the flip side, the story demonstrates how small shifts in awareness and prioritization can have profound positive results for a leader, team and the organization.

by anne lueneburger

Difficult conversations

This shot isn’t from an art gallery. This photo was taken in Shanghai where I was on a coaching mandate this spring. I’m looking at graffiti on a wall just outside the ‘slum’ area at Xiaonanmen station. A minute ago I had been immersed in a world of dense housing with people cooking on gas stoves on the street and scrawny chickens darting across old rubble and waste. A turn around a corner and I was in a rich urban development populated by lofts and artificial beaches, and other hallmarks of a modern metropolis. The contrast of poverty and privilege was stark. The angry expression on this man’s face seemed to represent the tension that often exists between worlds that are so close and so yet so far apart.

Growing up, conflict in my family was characterized by what the French call “soup au lait” (if you have ever heated up milk on a stove, you will know that it can boil over quickly, but then recede just as rapidly the moment you remove the pot from its heat source). Arguments quickly got hot and loud, only to cool off the next moment and certainly be forgotten the following day. Without exception, I found these exchanges stressful. The power imbalance between parent and child often translated into positions of being in the “right” and “wrong” and gave me a sense of helplessness when it came to the final decision. Most frustrating was that there were rarely any takeaways that would result from these arguments. Life would go on and it was “business as usual” – it all seemed to be a waste of time. No surprise then that I entered adulthood with a less than positive attitude when it came to conflict, and a rather unrefined tool kit that was little use in helping me to navigate tension effectively.

Over two decades have passed since then and today I want to share some hard won lessons, be it through formal training or the classroom we call “life”, on how we can create win-win outcomes in conflict situations.

Lesson 1: Stop thinking in positions.

I found myself smiling as I looked at the angry man. Our perception of conflict influences how we take our first step forward. I am no longer captive to my childhood paradigm when it comes to conflict. While some of us are born gifted mediators, navigating conflict can be learned. From what I know today, conflict is neither good nor bad. It is also not about winners and losers.

con·flict  \kän-flikt\ : competitive or opposing action of incompatibles

ne·go·ti·a·tion  \ni-ˌgō-shē-ˈā-shən : to confer with another or others in order to come to terms or reach an agreement

To shift beyond a “fixed pie” mentality we need to explore how we can expand the pie and negotiate. While it may not be feasible to completely obtain our position, it is often possible to satisfy our interests.

In this light, consider what would be acceptable outcomes for you? (And suspend your judgment for a moment and rank them in order of preference…) Also, have a BATNA (Best Alternative To a Negotiated Agreement) in place. What is your best course of action, should you and the other party not come to an agreement?

Lesson 2: Make it a choice.

 “Knowing when to fight is just as important as knowing how.”

– Terry Goodkind

While some may argue that avoiding any conflict is a lost opportunity, a good starting point is to gauge whether we really care or need to engage with the other party. Unless you thrive on the adrenaline rush that comes with conflict, the time and energy involved in negotiation and the effects of this, also needs to be weighed against the benefits. Here are the two questions to answer:

  • How important is this project to me?
  • How much do I value this relationship?

Sometimes it is simply better to walk away.

Lesson 3: Keep your shades clear.


Negotiations are often full of the unexpected and the complex. If you are not being clear about your own values, beliefs, and emotional triggers, then the chances are your shades are dirty. If we are not checking whether our assumptions are true then we risk stumbling in the dark when it comes to influencing others.

As you are getting ready to enter a specific negotiation, here are three questions to clarify:

>What outcome am I looking to achieve?

>What are some of my main concerns, going in?

>What needs am I ultimately trying to meet?

Also take a moment to consider a time when you handled conflict well. Which of your strengths were particularly useful? Now think of a time when you did not manage conflict constructively. What were key emotional triggers that tend to trip you up in general? (Keep a list!) What needs are associated with these?

I often ask my coaching clients to sit the Intercultural Conflict Style Inventory to clarify their default negotiation style and to explore the characteristics of alternative styles they might find useful, depending on the context.

Lesson 4: Rehearse.


You may remember the Hans Christian Andersen parable, The Emperor’s New Clothes, where the emperor’s weavers claimed a new fabric was invisible to all who were “hopelessly stupid.” No one, not even his advisors, dared tell the Emperor that he was naked. One day, as the Emperor strolled through the village, one boy in the crowd shouted that the Emperor wore nothing.

Who in your crowd is willing to shout out and hold you accountableFor tough negotiations, get an objective perspective from someone you trust and who gives candid feedback. Consider roleplaying to gauge how good your influencing skills really are.

Lesson 5: Lead with warmth.

Many of my clients, in particular female execs, are reluctant to accommodate during negotiations: “I don’t want to be the doormat” is a frequent pushback I receive as a coach. However, research confirms: leading with warmth as we aspire to influence others facilitates trust as it communicates that we are attentive to their needs. According to Gallup we are five times more likely to follow the lead of someone we trust.

Warmth expresses itself not only in what we say but also in how we say it. Vision is – hands down – our leading sense, taking up half of our brain’s resources. It is not surprising then, that body language steers how other people think and feel about us, and also how we feel about ourselves as there is a feedback loop: try smiling for a couple of minutes and your brain will increase its serotonin production, which is responsible for feelings of happiness.

Suggest a time for your discussion that accommodates the other party’s schedule. Consider using a more welcoming space in or outside the office. A 2010 study by MIT and Yale brain researchers confirms: offer the other party a comfortable chair and a coffee and they will be more flexible in their demands.

Add competence and a projection of strength to the mix and you become a “happy warrior.”

Lesson 6: Listen. Carefully.

Start any negotiation by inquiring about the other party’s perspective first. Rather than delivering your version of the story and risking a defensive reaction, you are getting a general sense as to where they are coming from.  Also, they are more likely to listen to you when it’s your turn. Questions you may ask are:


>What is their goal or desired outcome?

>How important is this goal to them?

>What relationships play key roles here?

>What are they most concerned about?

>What are some of the influencing factors we might not be aware of?

>What are their specific needs and what outcomes would address those?

Some of this will be hard to listen to and not react. Remember that listening and looking for a place of mutual understanding does not mean you are in agreement with the other person. This is a tough test for your listening skills. Powerful listening means you don’t go into your own head. You fully concentrate on what the other person is saying – as well as to what they are not saying… Observing their body language, facial expression, and tone of voice can give good clues as to what they may care most about.

Bonus Tip1: As you are listening, in addition to an open body language (Lesson 5), send verbal signals of acknowledgment such as “Ok, go on”, “uh huh” or “tell me more”.

Bonus Tip 2: Make sure you get all the broken pieces on the table at once before you begin trying to “glue it back together”.

Lesson 7: Meet them where they are.


Ever heard the saying “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”? As you are listening, show empathy where appropriate. “I can imagine that this must have been hard/difficult/frustrating…” Dance in the moment, step to their side and let go of trying to control their reaction: you can’t. If you hear common ground, be sure to mention it, “It is clear that this is frustrating for both of us. So, moving forward, what is important to you now?”

Paraphrasing involves restating what was just said using other words. It lets the other party know they have been heard. You validate their concerns. As you summarize milestones, do NOT say “What you are trying to say is…” but rather start with “So if I understand you correctly…”, “In other words, what you are saying is…”, “Let me make sure I got this right…”, or “Do you mean that…?”

Paraphrasing can also serve as an opener to probe for more information: “Can I ask a couple of questions?” Once you have listened to the other person, you have won yourself a hearing to assert your own needs.

Lesson 8: Stay calm…and carry on.

keep calm

It is particularly tough to manage emotional triggers when time constraints are factored into the equation.  In response to requests such as “I need it now!” consider asking “What is important about having it now?” (And if it’s you who puts on the pressure, ask yourself the same question). This might allow you to address an underlying need differently.

Also, if you are someone who needs time to reflect before making a decision, buy additional time. Play back the conversation until now: “To make sure I get what you are saying…” or, “Hold on, let me make sure I get this right, can we back up for a minute and review how we got here….” You may also ask “to enlist third party counsel or check in with the other parties who are involved” prior to making a decision.

If you’re tempted to blow up in the face of antagonism, pause for a moment before you respond: count to three, take a couple of deep breaths. Or take a break, step out into the corridor, go for a walk and remove yourself from the psychological pressure in the room. Imagine it’s five years from now: what do you think you will have learned from this conflict? How will you feel about how you handled it? What advice will the ‘older you’ tell the ‘younger you’ that is experiencing the challenge?

At all times, what helps you control your initial reaction is to keep your eyes on the prize: what is it that you really want as an outcome?

Tip: Ask yourself, before saying something:  “Is it kind, is it relevant, is it true?” If the answer is “no” for any of these, bite your lip and choose words that meet all of these criteria.

Lesson 9: State your case. Tactfully.

Now it is time to share your perspective. Your goal is for people to understand your view without making them defensive. The more you can bring their filters down, the more likely are they willing and able to hear you.

Own what is yours. Apologize for any wrongdoing on your part first. And where there is room for doubt, consider stating it in a more ambiguous fashion, such as “The information I got was that our client proposal came out as scheduled. I’ll have to take a closer look into this.”

Be specific about what you need. Rather than playing the risky game of having others guess as to what we want, be direct and as succinct as you can. For example, “I need for you to say what the priorities for this project are.”

Attack the problem. Not the person. If the goal is to fix the problem, pointing fingers will cause the other party to check out and become defense. One way to overcome this temptation is to focus on the future.

Lesson 10: Brainstorm & Agree on “what’s next”.

“We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” – Albert Einstein

You understand what the other party’s needs are (in addition to your own). You have identified common ground. Now you are ready to develop acceptable solutions. Select those options that will work for both of you. “Reality-test” them, using criteria of fairness and reciprocity, to ensure that needs are met on both sides. Mention their needs first, use the “we” as well as the “and” perspective as you are asserting your own needs:

>“If we move forward with this option, how can we make sure it addresses your need for abc and my need for xyz?”

>“I know this is important to the two of us. You do need abc and I need xyz. What are options that get us there?”

>“What I heard you say is…and from my point of view what I need is…, how can this option meet these criteria?”

If you are in a genuine deadlock, explore openly the costs of no agreement with the other party, holding up the mirror on what is at stake for the two of you. As a last resort you may choose to let the other party know that you have a BATNA: “I have other ideas on how to resolve this, however, my hope is that we resolve this together.” This tactic works best if all alternatives were not accepted. Never to be used as a threat but used as another piece of information.

Lesson +1: Celebrate agreement. Write it up.

Summarizing the main points of an agreement helps avoid future misunderstandings and sets standards of accountability. Sometimes a simple email to all participants can do the job. Be sure to mention how and by when the solution will be implemented as well as any milestones and metrics.

Now go, and have fun “arguing!”

P. S. Some reads you may want to check out:

  • Cuddy, A., Kohut, M., and Nelfinger, J. (July-August 2013).“Is it better to be loved or feared?” Harvard Business Review.
  • Stone, D., Patton, B., Heen, S. and Fisher, R. (2010). “Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most.” New York, NY: Penguin.
  • Kolb, D.M., Williams, J. (2003). “Everyday Negotiation: Navigating the Hidden Agendas in Bargaining.” San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
  • Medina, J.(2008). “Brain rules”
  • Ury, W.(1993). “Getting Past No.” New York, NY: Bantam Dell.

think big, start small

July 1, 2013

by renita kalhorn


You know how to eat an elephant, right? One bite at a time.When it comes to elephants, we get it – there’s no way we can eat one all at once. When it comes to our own goals however, we tend toward an all-or-nothing approach.

[Which explains Blue Monday, a theory by psychologist Dr. Cliff Arnall, who came up with a mathematical formula determining that the third Monday of the year is statistically the saddest day of the year.Makes sense: it’s about the three-week point that the zeal for your life-changing “this year will be different” new year’s resolutions starts to fade and the realization of what it’s going to take sinks in.]

Set yourself up for success

For sure, big goals are more compelling. Like Four-Hour Workweek author Tim Ferriss says, “Having an unusually large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal.”

The best way to get the big win, however, is to start small: modest, consistent progress almost always trumps all-out, dramatic efforts. Starting small sets you up for success [there’s nothing that says you can’t scale up as you acclimate!].

Here are three ways to start small:


Inevitably, all-or-nothing thinking – which, by definition, means going from 0 to 100 — creates inertia. Breaking a big goal up into micro-goals may mean less bragging rights [sorry, Ego!] but it busts through the wall of inertia. Once you start taking small steps, momentum kicks in and it actually becomes easier to keep moving forward than to stop.

At BUD/s training, Navy SEAL candidates are taught to “segment” –  rather than thinking about how they’re going to get through the next five days of Hell Week, to focus on the micro-goal of getting to the next meal, the next evolution.

Former SEAL Commander Mark Divine says: “When we set our sights on micro-goals, we achieve micro-wins, which quickly stack up and develop a sense of momentum and “can-do” instead of “can’t – won’t.”

Micro-goals work  in a crisis too. Jeff Wise, author of Extreme Fear, says: “If you’re bogged down in a massive project at work, then, don’t let yourself despair at the hugeness of the task. Break it down into pieces small enough that you can do each one in an hour or less, and focus all your attention exclusively on that.”


Anyone who’s intent on mastering a skill may scoff at the value of practicing only five minutes. But Daniel Coyle, author of The Talent Code, says: “When you practice a little each day, skills don’t erode. In fact, they consolidate. It’s like a bank account earning compound interest: a virtuous spiral where skill accrues quickly.”

This is exactly what my violinist sister found as she was counting down the last three months before returning to her post at the Paris Opera after several years focused on raising her children. By practicing every day – even if only for 15 minutes – she showed up at the first rehearsal feeling confident and in control.


And, finally, for everyone who says they don’t have time to exercise, former Navy SEAL Phil Black and founder of FitDeck, is on a mission to change that with micro-cising. “Basically, he says, “whenever I found myself waiting for someone or something, I started microcising. It didn’t matter what I was wearing, there was no sweating involved, and no exercise took more than 10-20 seconds at a time.”

Check out this example of how he found hidden pockets of time to exercise while the eggs are boiling, a TV commercial is playing and his kids are putting on their soccer cleats.

by anne lueneburger


A few days ago it was a beautiful summer eve in New York. The city was at its best, with blue skies, temperatures in the mid 70s, no humidity, and just a gentle breeze. As a result, it was with some hesitation that I walked up the stairs of Columbia University’s Grace Dodge Hall, a somewhat somber, old red brick building that would fit perfectly onto Hogwarts campus (apologies: my 10-year-old has been sharing all of her Harry Potter stories lately, and some of her preoccupation seems to have rubbed off on her mother).

Fast forward 90 minutes, and I walk back out into the fresh air, feeling inspired. I had just attended a speech by Professor Warner Burke, a guru on organizational change and leadership effectiveness. The message that he delivered with an entertaining Texan twang: Learning agility is the sine qua non when we want to effect change.

Change is hard, even if it involves desired change (for more, see our article “no pain, no gain” here.) No surprise, without the appropriate outlook, approach and support, about two thirds of organizational change efforts fail, and leaders of change are effective only about half of the time.

What then differentiates high performing leaders of change from those that fail? According to extensive research by Burke and his team (and backed up by other high profile studies) it is not what is frequently used in the process of identifying high potentials, factors such as “past performance” and “competence” as well as “other stuff”. The process of changing dynamics can render past experience irrelevant, and it may require few of the skills and competencies that an individual currently possesses. It reminded me of what leadership coach Marshall Goldsmith summarized so well: What got you here won’t get you there.

Now, what about the “other stuff?” Burke went on to explain that “other stuff” is often a selection bias, based on the similarity between individuals. In other words, if your boss feels like you are in many ways similar to her, you are significantly more likely to be considered a high potential. A longitudinal study within AT&T, for example, found that more low potentials were promoted than high potential ones, as long as they worked for the “right bosses”. Not surprisingly, leaders often use the same selection bias of similarity when it comes to building their teams. This helps explain why there are a good number of underperforming teams, as innovation and change is driven by healthy debate and an openness to see the world in a variety of ways.

Successful change agents such as Brian Walker of Hermann Miller, Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Steve Jobs of Apple are role models when it comes to learning agility. According to Burke’s research, in addition to learning agility, the two other key drivers of successful change leadership are emotional intelligence and optimism (which did not come as a surprise to the psychologists and coaches in the room!).

So, what makes for learning agility?

We know that effective learning has both a cognitive and behavioral component. As we struggle to look into what goes on in other people’s heads, the focus of being able to assess learning agility is to look for the following behavioral components:

  • Feedback seeking.
  • Information gathering.
  • Exposing and learning from failure.
  • Risk taking.
  • Collaborating.
  • Experimenting.
  • Reflecting.
  • Quick study.
  • Swift but not hasty decision-making.

If you are like most of us in the audience that day, then you are probably curious to find out what your particular agility score is… While the full research results and an accompanying assessment will not be available until September, here is a questionnaire Burke shared with those of us who are looking for instant knowledge gratification:

Rate yourself on a scale of “1” [to a very small extent] to “5” [to a very great extent] on what extent do you…
1…seek feedback from others about your work performance?
2…update your knowledge by collecting information from outside sources?
3…discuss with others errors or mistakes you may have made and seek help in understanding what happened?
4…put yourself into situations that involve a high degree of ambiguity about the process and/or outcome?
5…facilitate learning from and among others?
6…collect data to test and try out a new idea about and/or approach to work?
7…take time after an event to consider what happened, why it happened that way, and how things should be done moving forward?
8…move easily between different ideas and perspectives?
9…pick up quickly new information, ideas, and behavior?
10…rely on using what has worked for you in the past?

After you have rated yourself on each question, add up your total score for questions 1 through 9. For question 10, revert your number (i.e. if you rated yourself a “5”, give yourself a “1”, if you rated yourself a “4”, give yourself a “2”, “3” stays the same) and then add this to your total score. Why? Question 10 tests our rigidity factor, aka “we have always done things this way”, which is known to get in the way of agility.

If you score 40 or higher then you may well be on your way to mastery. It’s always good to practice some humility though, as we know that for any self-rating assessment a remarkable 80 percent of us tend to overrate ourselves.

And if you are inspired to grow your change agent muscles (as you know now, seeking feedback is a key component of learning agility!), here is an experiment you may wish to try: Why not have your team score you on the same questionnaire, and compare those results with yours? Now take a closer look at where you think you are compared to your team’s perceptions, and you may find where you could stretch yourself a bit more…

by anne lueneburger

As this is one of our top blogs that has received over 60,000 hits and the idea of managing our emotions more effectively never gets old, we decided to re-post this entry  for all of you who have not yet had a chance to read it.

We’ve all been there…

  • You received an email that upset or frustrated you. Were you tempted to hit ‘reply all’, and type a very direct response and send it off with lightning speed….?
  • You’re sitting in a feedback meeting and your boss is telling you that your performance is below expectations. Do you stop him mid sentence, raise your voice and tell him that Brad S. – your ‘peer’ – is a lousy team player and that it’s all his fault?

When we have these experiences and are tempted to react in – what we know in retrospect would be an irrational way – we are experiencing what psychologists call an ‘amygdala hijack’: your emotions taking over your actions.

What happens?

(If you’re not interested in the biological bit then move on to ‘Quick interventions’!)

When we experience an amygdala hijack, the emotional part of the brain – the amygdala – overrides the thinking part of the brain – the neocortex – in response to a perceived threat. Depending on the degree of hijack, your ability to reason and think logically is compromised. Your working memory will become less efficient and your blood pressure, adrenaline and hormone levels rise.  It can take 3 to 4 hours for it to clear your system…

While an overactive amygdala serves a useful purpose when faced with a genuine physical threat (when emotions and reactions are crucial), it can cause problems when faced with an emotional threat.

During the hijack, your number of perceived options will decrease dramatically.  Instead of maybe 4 ways of resolving a problem, you will only perceive 3, then 2 (giving you an either/or choice), and then only 1.  When there is only 1 option left: the hijack is complete. You will turn to default, habitual behaviors: you are on auto-pilot and liable to make dangerously biased decisions, and you lose your ability to communicate effectively.

Successful leaders and business people have to know how to bypass the amygdala hijack. Here are some tactics to help you avoid making any rash decisions.

O Quick interventions

Channel your frustration. Use the extra adrenaline to develop an assertive, but not aggressive, response to the problem. Find what is triggering the emotions in your head.  This will help to keep the neocortex active, and prevent the amygdala from taking over. This also enables you to make your opinion known without hurting others (an aggressive response could spark a spiral of negative exchanges: which isn’t good for anybody).

Physically withdraw. If you sense the hijack, consider removing yourself physically from the situation until you can think more clearly. It can be as simple as excusing yourself to use the restroom or taking a break in the meeting (if you’re chairing it).  If you’re on the phone, you can always say that “something’s come up” and could you call back in a few minutes?

Breathe deeply. Taking deep breaths from your diaphragm (not your chest, as shallow breathing produces carbon monoxide!) with intention and purpose. Pay attention to your breath: repeat ‘in and out’. This oxygenates your neocortex, keeping it engaged and your emotions in check.

Create a mantra. If you know you are about to enter a difficult meeting then come up with a ‘mantra’ that keeps you sane, such as ‘success is the best revenge’ or ‘focus on what matters’. Write this mantra on papers that you bring to the meeting and, if you feel your emotions taking over, look at your mantra and repeat it in your head.

Zing yourself. This is an interesting technique borrowed from neuro-linguistic programming (too big an area to cover in this entry!).  What you need to do: before the meeting put a rubber band on your wrist, then ‘zing’ yourself (snap the band against your wrist) and repeat a mantra such as ‘relax’ or ‘calm down’. Once you’re in the meeting and feel tension beginning to rise, zing yourself again. This will remind you of and enforce your mantra: this really does work!

Envision. For some of you, zinging yourself may sound a bit painfulJ.  If so, then try to just visualize a relaxing experience: a calm blue glacier lake, a green pasture with horses grazing…anything that either your memory or imagination offers you and helps you to relax.

Be appreciative. It may be challenging, but strive to look at the positive aspects of a situation: including the person you may feel aggrieved by. Try to see if there is anything true or helpful in what they say or who they are.

Use humor. This may not necessarily involve you injecting humor into the situation (it can, but bear in mind that this could be misunderstood by the other party). You could, for example, when you are upset and ready to use some extreme (maybe offensive!) words, stop and visualize what you are ‘literally’ saying to the other person – or advising them to do… This should help you not to take yourself so seriously!

Role-play. If you know that an encounter could present problems, then think about role playing the situation – either in your head or with a partner. This is a highly effective tactic for preparing yourself for every eventuality and giving your emotional self a ‘heads up’.

O Long term interventions

Create learnings. Take the time to revisit the hijack experience after it’s over to learn more about what happened and why. Identify the trigger and you’ll better manage your emotions and interrupt the hijack if it happens again.

Loving-kindness meditation. Scientist Barbara Fredrickson, expert on well-being and positive emotions recommends meditation in her latest book. Loving-kindness meditation is a powerful tool to help you manage the frustrations and challenges that life can bring.

Yoga. As with meditation, yoga is a powerful tool for managing emotional distress and creating a balance within that help you deal with difficult situations. Busy executives are increasingly practicing yoga as a means of reducing tension and managing stress.

Company programs. There are company programs in place that recognize the importance of sound mind and sound body: such as the Stanford Corporate health program.  This is a joint effort between the school and leading corporations such as AT&T, Bank of America and IBM.

Read up. Robert Sapolsky, eminent American stress researcher, has written a great book: Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. Sapolsky recommends prevention – learning to recognize the signs of the stress response, and identifying and mastering the situations that trigger it…

So… if you think that you’re about to have an amygdala hijack: be aware of it, master some techniques to help you through and – most importantly – DON’T HIT SEND!

the power of boring

March 11, 2013

by renita kalhorn

consistency-quote 2

In October 1911, two teams of adventurers were heading separate expeditions toward the South Pole – one led by Roald Amundsen from Norway and the other by Robert Falcon Scott of England.

Amundsen adhered to a regimen of consistent progress, traveling 15 – 20 miles per day, resisting the temptation to go farther in good weather, in order to avoid reaching a point of exhaustion that could leave his team exposed, and pressing ahead even in nasty weather to stay on pace. Even when they were only 45 miles away from the South Pole — with splendid weather, the ability to reach the pole in one 24-hour push, not to mention the threat hanging over his head of Scott reaching there first – what did Amundsen do? He went 17 miles.

Scott, on the other hand, would sometimes drive his team to exhaustion on good days and then sit in his tent and complain about the weather on bad days. (According to Roland Huntford’s account in The Last Place on Earth, Scott faced six days of gale-force winds and traveled on none, whereas Amundsen faced 15 and traveled on eight.)

Amundsen’s disciplined approach turned out to be critical not only to his success but to his survival: he and his men emerged victorious, clocking in at the South Pole right on pace, averaging 15.5 miles per day. Scott and his team discovered the flag Amundsen had posted there when they reached the Pole 34 days later. Having to turn around in bitter disappointment, they perished on the way home from a combination of exhaustion, starvation and extreme cold.


Citing the parallel paths and dramatically different attitudes of Amundsen and Scott as an example in their fascinating book Great by Choice, Jim Collins and Morten Hansen detail the results of nine years of research into why “10X companies” — companies that beat their industry index by at least 10 times over the course of three decades — are able to create exceptional outcomes despite chaos and uncertainty.

One of the key leadership traits they identified at the set of exemplary companies they examined, was a “fanatic discipline” – the ability to establish consistent action in line with a core value, method or standard over long periods of time.

In establishing what Collins and Hansen dubbed “The 20-Year March,” the leaders of these companies established two kinds of self-imposed discomfort: 1) an unwavering commitment to high performance in difficult conditions; and 2) the restraint to hold back in good conditions.

Southwest Airlines, for example, was able to generate a profit every year for 30 years — despite an environment rife with high-profile bankruptcies, deregulation, fuel shocks, union strikes, and terrorist attacks. At the same time, CEO Herb Kelleher resisted the lure of fast expansion in good times, even if it meant leaving growth on the table: In 1996, Southwest had demand for service from 100 US cities but expanded to only four – how many companies have the self-restraint to stick to the plan in the face of seemingly easy opportunity?

As CEO of Progressive Insurance in the late 1990s, Peter Lewis faced a seemingly irrational Wall Street driving the stock price up and down. He decided to stop playing the “I’ll tell you what we’ll earn and you’ll predict what we’ll earn” game that most companies play with analysts on a quarterly basis and — in a revolutionary move of self-imposed accountability — became the first SEC-listed company to publish financial statements on a monthly basis.

And though Paul O’Neill wasn’t specifically focused on the bottom line when he became CEO of Alcoa in 1987 and famously declared workplace safety as the company’s number-one priority, by the time he retired in 2000, the company’s annual net income was five times larger than when he arrived – its market cap had risen by $27 billion and the company’s worker injury rate had fallen to one-twentieth the U.S. average.


The thing is, consistency is predictable and therefore boring. Our egos crave the adrenaline rush, the drama, the roar of the crowd that comes with an unexpected or breakout effort.

As Scott fatally discovered, however, the recovery required after making the big surge often knocks out the advantage gained. (You see this in sales all the time – the top producer with record-breaking numbers one month is crawling along the bottom the next.)

Constant switching between different strategies or programs – think of the people who jump around between every diet and exercise trend — kills momentum and motivation. It takes exceptional discipline to adhere to the game plan, to not give into emotion, and to resist the pressure to conform, to follow the herd or pull ahead of the competition.

Former Navy SEAL Commander Mark Divine, who provides hard-core physical training at his SEALFIT camps, tells the boot camp version of Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare. In a 1000-push-up challenge, most of the guys, typically 20 years younger than him, start out at breakneck speed, cranking out 60 push-ups at a time. They can’t maintain the pace, however, and soon they’re slowing down to 40, then 20, then 10… Meanwhile, Commander Divine starts off with a controlled, steady pace, taking a deep breath every five push-ups and, inevitably, overtakes the others to win.

The ability to take consistent and disciplined action – setting a pace that is sustainable over the long haul – yields powerful advantages:

–       instilling confidence in your ability to continue in the face of adversity

–       creating a sense of control in chaotic environments

–       ensuring that everyone knows the markers and their importance

–       building momentum that produces exponential results

Consistent company performance starts with disciplined leaders and teams. Like a muscle, you can only develop discipline by exercising it: whether you’re in sales knocking out 50 cold calls every week, a marathoner sticking to a pre-determined pace, a football coach making sure your players train in all kinds of weather and conditions, or the principal of a charter school making top literacy scores your number-one priority.

Where can you be more consistent to create your own 10X results?

No plan? No problem.

February 25, 2013

by pamela welling

This month I’ve been reading about two very different, but successful men with something rather startling in common.

Ian C. Rogers

The first, Ian C. Rogers is the uber cool CEO of Topspin Media. Rogers is considered to be one of the most influential media innovators in the music industry hanging with rock royalty like the Beastie Boys and the Pixies. He was in the first wave of early adopters who saw the potential for web based music platforms long before Steve Jobs conceived of iTunes.

Paul O’Grady

The second, Paul O’Grady is an award winning comedian back in his native England with a prime time chat show, a weekly radio program and various high profile theater credits under his belt.

The American innovator and the British drag queen: what, I hear you ask, could they possibly have in common? Well, the first thing is their success; both men are well respected, often consulted and regularly recognized by peers for excellence in their field. The second; they both worked from the roots up to achieve success. Rogers became a dad at the tender age of 17 whilst in community college, O’Grady was 19 when his daughter arrived and never quite made it to college leaving school at age 16. And finally? Despite scaling to the competitive tops of their respective professions, neither man had a career plan. Yep, you read it right, despite being massively successful professionally both O’Grady and Rogers openly admit that they didn’t set out on their career paths with a big strategy in mind, a revelation that is just fascinating to a coach like me with a focus on career planning and leadership development. All the management texts and self-anointed career experts bombard us with warnings about the dangers of navigating without a plan, we’ve all read quotes telling us that failing to plan means we are planning to fail, so how did O’Grady and Rogers get it so right despite supposedly doing it so wrong?

Well first, they did what I consider to be the cornerstone of career happiness- they figured out their passions and found ways to pursue them- Rogers put together a fan website for the Beastie Boys in his spare time- a hobby that landed him a spot on their creative team and fostered a life-long collaboration with the band. O’Grady performed as his drag alter ego ‘Lilly Savage’ on the pub and club circuit in the UK after he’d closed the door on his day job working for a local government office, building a fan base and profile that finally lead to him to go pro in the 1980s.

Second, they were able to differentiate between what Harvard Professor Clayton Christensen calls ‘emergent’ and ‘deliberate’ strategy. Christensen defines emergent strategies as those evolving out of our exposure to new ideas, unplanned situations and new challenges. He defines deliberate strategy as our ability to use those experiences and the learning we have from them to figure out where we want to go next in a more thoughtful and planned way. Rogers used his learning helping the Beasties Boys connect directly with fans as the foundation to launch Topspin media, a firm that aims to connect artists directly to fans without the interference of a record company. O’Grady used his learning to establish a safe alter ego who could publicly address the misrepresentation of the LGBT community in the media, especially during the HIV/AIDS crisis of the mid-80’s, in a direct yet non-threatening way.

So as you are thinking about your next career move, whether internal or external, think about your passions and how they can inform your decision making. Are you a Zen princess yogi warrior on the weekend? Figure out how you can bring that Zen learning into your work to soothe tough team members. Do you travel the world as a photographer in your spare time? What new opportunities in the workplace can your keen eye spot to help you work smarter?

I hope you have fun with the concepts of emergent and deliberate strategy. If you would like to delve deeper, I’d recommend Christensen’s 2012 book ‘How Will You Measure Your Life’ to help you on the way- enjoy!