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 anne lueneburger

To enter Frankford High School, located in a Northeast Philly neighborhood, students have to pass a metal detector. That is if they show up. One out of four students is absent on any given day. Frankford High with its poor socio-economic fabric is rich in hard-luck stories reflected in a 40% dropout rate. Not so for Wilma Stephenson, Frankford High’s culinary art teacher and resident game changer: 100% of her students graduate and find their place in colleges and culinary institutions around the country.

Stephenson demands excellence. She barks out instructions and has her students come in at 5.30 in the morning to peel potatoes for hours until they resemble the perfect “torpedo” shape. The image of a drill sergeant comes to mind (not best practice in giving feedback!). How does she get away with it? One of the reasons students commit is certainly that Stephenson has a track record of teaching those kids to cook well enough to win big scholarship money at the citywide cooking competition every year: close to $1,000,000. But acquiring useful skills or promising outcomes does not fully explain why most students continue to show up for class.

What motivates Stephenson’s students to accept her high standards is that they know her feedback is rooted in one thing. She deeply cares about each and every one of them. She puts in long hours for her students, gets to know them as individuals and will not shy away from standing up for them even in personally challenging situations. Stephenson’s students sense that her “I love you” comes from a profoundly honest place. She bridges her student’s tension of wanting to learn and grow and being accepted for who they are. As Tabeka, one of her students, sums it up: “To me she is a hero.”

We all need feedback, it’s essential. That’s how we get better. But it’s not easy to hear that we screwed up or fell short of our potential. Likewise, it’s uncomfortable to tell someone that he needs to “course correct.”


A recent study showed that over half of feedback received is perceived as unfair and inaccurate. To give good feedback, we must understand what makes it so hard to receive it in the first place. According to Harvard’s negotiation gurus Sheila Heen and Douglas Stone, there are three triggers that cause us to reject feedback:

  1. Content triggers: We see the advice or assessment as unhelpful, if not untrue.
  2. Identity triggers: We see our values and who we are as a person come under attack (regardless if the feedback is “right” or “wrong”).
  3. Relationship triggers: We do not feel connected with the giver, for a myriad of reasons (i.e. perceived lack of competence, goodwill, respect).

There are proven methods such as the Situation-Behavior-Impact approach that can help a feedback giver avoid some of the content and identity triggers that might trip us up. It’s trickier when it comes to the relationship itself. Often, we make assumptions about the recipient of our feedback and bring this bias into the mix. The recipient may have made our life difficult and our frustrations and personal annoyances negatively impact the conversation.

Or we may want to avoid giving feedback and let ourselves off the hook when it comes to having these difficult conversations (often under the pretense that we do not want to hurt someone else’s feelings). Just the other day I caught myself again picking up the clothes after my teenager rather than ask her to do this herself (sigh!). Why? Because it was easier…for me!

Whenever there is a disconnect (between actions, values, or personalities), it will feel like feedback in a boxing ring – for both parties. However, giving feedback is a major developmental tool for leaders. And it is a leader’s responsibility to not rob those under her care of this opportunity.

The good news is that we can avoid relationship triggers and build a sense of connection with our recipients. Ideally, we have already built a rapport long before we have a feedback session. But even in these circumstances, we need to suspend our own agenda first. We have to put ourselves into the other persons’ shoes. What will most likely be their state of mind? How have they reacted to feedback in the past? What might be a particular trigger for them and why?

Then comes the real stretch assignment for the majority of us. And the most important one. Until we feel a sense of true caring and compassion for our recipient, we are not ready to give feedback. Period. Full stop.

So how then can you develop this caring, positive attitude towards someone who may have challenged you in every possible way? Here are 5+1 ideas you might want to try to get yourself into the right state of mind before you start a difficult conversation:

1. Think 3:1.

From research we know that relationships that flourish have a 3:1 feedback ratio. Write down three positives for every piece of criticism you are going to share.

2. Adopt a growth mindset (as opposed to a fixed mindset).

Assume that people can change. In this light, be sure to supplement evaluative comments that you prepare (i.e. “your rating is average on commercial orientation”) with coaching questions (“what do you think you can do to improve?”) and advice (“here is what I can suggest”).

3. Leverage strengths.

Take the top three signature strengths of your recipient and explore together with her how she might apply them to develop and evolve. (Don’t know her strengths? Invite her to take the VIA Pro Strengths assessment and leverage the results as part of your feedback session).

4. Keep it real.

Reflect on your own biases. Where might they come from? How can you make sure to stay in a place of thinking in the best interest of the recipient? How can you give yourself reminders not to get tripped up and suffer from amygdala hijacks?

5. Breathe deeply.

Put your hand on your upper chest. Take a breath, then exhale with the feeling and sound of a sigh of relief:”aahhhh.” Notice how your chest softens downward under your hand as air flows out. Do this a couple of more times and think about your lungs releasing toxins and stale air, creating more space for fresh air. Then inhale, and on the exhale whisper, “La, la, la, la…” for the length of the exhale (this helps carry air out of your body.). Let each inhale come naturally, whenever it arrives, allowing your abdomen to soften each time. Repeat until you feel your whole body softening.

+1. Hold a warm cup of tea (or coffee) in your hands.

Say what?!? Yes, that’s right. Warmth dramatically improves our ability to become more caring. Many studies support this finding. Recent research out of Yale showed that a mere 25% of study participants that were holding a cold pad chose a gift for a friend, compared to 54% of those handling a hot pad. And while physical warmth can cause us to be warmer, it also makes us see others as warmer people. So we suggest you also offer your recipient a warm cup of tea.

Caring about our recipients significantly raises our chances to give impactful feedback. It might motivate to know that seeing a world of possibilities also makes us smarter. In a 2009 study, Adam Anderson of the University of Toronto proved that positive emotions literally change how the brain works. Positivity broadens our awareness and we are better at seeing the big picture and connecting the dots. A positive state of mind also makes us more resilient and prepares us for bouncing back from difficult conversations, according to Barbara Fredrikson’s research. An asset for both feedback giver and recipient.

Wilma Stephenson intuitively gets the most essential part of giving feedback right. She breaks many rules on what we know about giving effective feedback, be it raising her voice or publicly scolding her disciples. But what makes her ultimately successful is that she is the number one cheerleader of her students. Her tight ship is founded on a deep sense of caring and love.

So yes, you can learn the skills to give effective feedback. In fact, we are happy to email you a complimentary copy of our North of Neutral feedback guide if you send us a note to hello@northofneutral.com. But it is only if you engage with the heart that your feedback will fall on fertile grounds and bear fruit.

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 carolyn mathews


Most of us have likely heard the suggestion to “think positive” when we are in tough or distressing situations. For some people, this may truly be more difficult than for others. Although well meaning, suggesting positive thinking may result in a rebound effect.

Researchers at Michigan State University have discovered brain markers that indicate a propensity toward positive or negative thought. In other words, we tend to be hardwired biologically. The researchers recorded brain activity while showing graphic images to study participants. Positive thinkers showed less brain activity than negative thinkers. What’s more, the request to decrease negative emotions backfired to make negative emotions worse, shown by increased brain activity.

The take-away? Suggesting to people that they think more positively in tough situations or transitions probably won’t work. If they were hardwired for this, they would probably be doing it already. (This, in part, is what concerns me about the self-help, positive thinking industry. But I digress…) What works better, according to lead researcher, Jason Moser, is to have the person “think about the problem in a different way, to use different strategies.”

As a positive psychology practitioner, one of my first strategies to help someone navigate a major life transition would be to employ relevant character strengths, such as creativity, judgment, bravery and hope. (Other character strengths may also be useful for some people in considering the problem differently, too.)

Creativity: Thinking of novel and productive ways to conceptualize and do things.

Judgment: Thinking things through and examining them from all sides.

Bravery: Not shrinking from threat, challenge, difficulty or pain.

Hope: Expecting the best in the future and working to achieve it.

Boosting the use of these strengths in difficult times may be just what is needed to help the person navigate the tough times without the added (and useless) pressure of also having to “think positive.” Even if they are not among your top character strengths, they can be boosted.  For brief definitions of these suggested character strengths, see below. Then, think about ways you can use them as you find yourself reacting to difficult situations. They may just help move you from negative thinking to useful thinking.


Source: VIA Institute on Character. For more complete definitions of these character strengths, or to learn more about other character strengths, go to www.viacharacter.org

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.

by anne lueneburger

Whether you are a Woody Allen fan or not, he tends to have an interesting lens to see the world… I found his quote on living life as I was reflecting upon what my aspirations and hopes were for the coming year:

“In my next life I want to live my life backwards. You start out dead and get that out of the way. Then you wake up in an old people’s shoe feeling better every day. You get kicked out for being too healthy, go collect your pension and then when you start work, you get a gold watch and party on your first day. You work for 40 years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement. You party, drink alcohol, and are generally promiscuous, then you are ready for high school. You then go to primary school, you become a kid, you play. You have no responsibilities, you become a baby until you are born. And then you spend your last 9 months floating in luxurious spa-like conditions with central heating and room service on tap, larger quarters every day, and then Voila! You finish off as an orgasm.”

As funny as it is to read this, Woody Allen does have a point. Thinking about our goals for the next year (something most of us do over this change in calendar year) is too narrow of a focus to get it right. It may allow us to be more deliberate in our choices in the context of our most immediate goals. But really, for these choices to be the right ones, we need to know about our general “compass”.  Finding this compass ultimately determines whether we lead a life that carries purpose (or not). Building on what Woody Allen suggests, we need to start with the very final moment of our life, when we are taking some of our last breaths. Who do we want to be surrounded by? What would we like for these people to say about us once we leave this earth for good? What are some of the choices we hope we would have made? And now, taking the wisdom we have gathered, if we had the ability to go back in time, to this very moment, and to talk to ourselves as you if we were looking at this scene through a screen. What advice would the old wise us give give this person? How could we help them be a better professional, and more importantly, lead a better  life? What would we tell them on what matters, and what doesn’t?

In coaching as we partner with clients to help them to set the right priorities and to make good choices, we use this exercise, ‘Create your own legacy’ on a regular basis.

What do you want your legacy to be? The North of Neutral team will take this winter break (we will be back on Monday, January 28th) to fill it with activities around the holidays and some of our regular client work. But we also commit to setting aside time to reflect upon our own legacies as we move into 2013.

In this spirit, we thank you for your loyalty over this past year and look forward to serving you in a strong, positive way in this coming year – to offer you our attention, time and ideas, all of which are intended to give you the results and legacies you wish to create for yourself.

Happy Holidays!


by jennifer bezoza

…one cannot build performance on weakness, let alone on something one cannot do at all. Peter Drucker

I have long been a fan of the Gallup Strengthsfinder assessment.  This tool is based on the Gallup organization’s research of thousands of professionals in the workplace.  What Gallup has identified in studying professionals over decades is that there are 34 signature workplace themes that essentially define how we think, what we attend to and what we feel compelled to do on a daily basis.

Recently, a coaching client asked me if I had recommendations for activities on an upcoming retreat with her new team.  Immediately, I suggested the Strengthsfinder for the reason that is an affirming individual assessment and also a strategic teambuilding activity.  In addition, at fourteen dollars and fifty cents, the book along with the online assessment is a great price.

Both as individuals and as a society, there is a tendency to focus on our deficits and what we are lacking in compared to others.   As Marcus Buckingham points out in his video, when our children bring home a report card with some As and Bs and two Ds, we are likely to comment only on the nearly failing grades and overlook the A grades.    We tend to focus on remediating deficits more than we focus on building on and developing strengths.   In my work with clients, I consistently notice the tendency to devalue our own talents; just because something, such as carrying on conversation with strangers at a cocktail party (emblematic of the Woo theme), comes easy to us does not mean it comes easy to another individual.  Too often, individuals are disappointed with their own list of strengths and are looking over their shoulders with envy to the individual who possesses strengths on the opposite side of the spectrum.

I had the opportunity to observe my client’s team as they reported out on their top five themes from the Strengthsfinder.  Each talked about which 1-2 on their list particularly resonated and then had the opportunity to get feedback about which ones stood out to their fellow team members.   The exercise gave the team a new language and frame of reference to understand themselves and one another in a positive light.

In addition, it allowed the team to think about the broader mix of strengths in the group and where the strengths overlapped and complimented one another.  It is helpful to examine the group’s strengths as it relates to the four main buckets of strengths: Executing, Influencing, Relationship Building, and Strategic.  Then the team might notice patterns; for example, they might be strong in Strategic and Executing strengths, but weaker in Relationship Building and Influencing strengths.  This particular client will be hiring new team members and can use this data to hire individuals that will balance out the current mix of strengths.  In addition, the current team can use this information to work more collaboratively in ways not foreseen previously.

All in all, the Strengthsfinder tool is low-hanging fruit for any team looking to enhance team member engagement and performance.

by anne lueneburger

“You have to watch this”, my friend and North of Neutral colleague Carolyn Mathews urged me last summer. As she knows I share her passion for the science behind positive psychology, so she had forwarded me a 12-minute Ted Talk of Harvard scholar Shawn Achor in which he, in lightening speed, covers the high points of the latest research on happiness:

Achor’s presentation was hilarious as much as it was thought provoking.  I wanted to know more and so got myself a copy of his book, “The Happiness Advantage”. Money well spent: a bit like the happiness guide for the executive traveler, Achor takes on the business lens when it comes to happiness and examines how it correlates with success. Bold in his claims, he is able to back them up and offers comprehensive sources to support his assertions. Chances are you have never heard of some of the findings he shares (most academic research articles are, on average, read only by seven people!).

So, in case you have no time to read his book, here is what you should know:

Happiness first, then success (not the other way round).

I still remember my history lesson on Copernikus in high school. With his publication some 500 years ago, where he famously pronounced that the earth revolved around the sun (not the other way round), he ran into a lot of resistance but ultimately his theory changed the way we see the world for good.

Much like the scientific revolution of the middle ages, research over the past 50 years shows that there may be a different relationship of variables when it comes to cause and effect than we may have preciously assumed. For example: do you need to be smart first to wear a doctor’s coat or could it be the coat that influences your IQ points? Have a look at this NY Times article that describes how participants in a research study who put on a doctor’s white coat were found to be significantly more acute and critical in their thinking than those without the coat… Do you first feel like you are in a good enough mood to smile or could it be also the other way around? If you are interested, try a little experiment: smile for at least 20 seconds several times over the course of half an hour and observe what happens to your mood… (We know from neuroscience that we can “trick” our brain into thinking that there is good reason to be happy and as a result produce neuro-chemicals that actually make us happy.)

There is no doubt that success can bring about happy moments. As I was writing this blog, my client Ryan (who works for a well-known strategy consulting firm) called me with the good news that he had been promoted to partner that morning. His happiness was palpable over the phone. However, if we are looking for sustainable happiness (and success), it is foremost a general sense of well-being at work, of being in the flow, and engaged at what we do that fuels success. And despite his promotion, I know from my work with Ryan that in our next session we will need to continue to help him build his authentic leadership style, in order for him to feel fulfilled at work and to be successful over the long haul.

The facts support this. So, no surprise that doctors who are in a good mood are three times more creative and resourceful when it comes to diagnosing and helping patients (a criteria to add when it comes to choosing your physician).  And that optimistic sales people outsell their pessimistic peers by 56%. Smart organizations capitalize on these insights. Take Zappos: different from most call centers in the US that have close to 100% turnover, this online retailer sees very little talent drain (they give their employees full autonomy on how to make a sale, there is no script, no monitoring. And as a result, they are ranked ahead of ritzy brands like Apple or BMW when it comes to customer service).

Happiness is the core, success orbits around it.

Try this: Think of your last bonus at work. What did you do with this money? How long did that feeling of happiness last? How did it impact your level of engagement at work? Now think of an activity at work you engage in because you enjoy doing so, and you notice that you are getting better as you are practicing a skill associated with this activity. What is it? What sort of emotions do you notice when you are in the middle of this activity? What do you notice when it comes to your levels of engagement at work if you integrate more of this activity at work? Not quite sure what activity that might be? Use our complimentary online assessment to get clarity around what passions you at work by clicking here.

You have a choice to be happy. 

Happiness is the sum of: our DNA, the curveballs life throws us, and finally our behavior and the lens we choose to look at the world through. Research shows that almost half of how well we fare in life and in our careers is down to us:

Source: Lyubomirksy, S. (2010). The How of Happiness. New York: Penguin Books.

Did you know that fMRI studies show that cab drivers who deliver their clients without GPS have significantly enlarged hippocampi (the region of the brain responsible for spatial memory)? Have you heard that blind people who rely on their fingers to read Braille showed brain activity no different from seeing people when it came to touches to their non-reading hand, however, when their Braille-reading finger was tapped, an enormous region in the prefrontal cortex (our IQ  powerhouse) would light up – very different from their seeing peers?

As a result of neural plasticity, we can literally change the structure of our brains. This may mean being able to learn a foreign language at the age of 50, or it may mean becoming a more empathetic and trustworthy leader of our teams. The key is that once we are aware of what we need to change to be happy and successful, we can.  And there many interventions that research offers that we can engage in to deliberately change the way we feel. It may be using our signature strengths more often and in new ways at work. It can involve being more intentional when it comes to forging strong relationships at work. Did you know that people who have a ‘best buddy’ at work tend to be seven times more engaged and fulfilled in their careers?

Try this: If you want to run your own experiment, for one week write down three positive events every day. And track your mood over time. What do you notice?

You can change significantly more than you think you can.

Now you have read so far and you may agree that starting with a focus on happiness in our career and lives, a focus on what our strengths are, what energizes us and what we are good at is superior to trying to get to the front in the rat race, and hoping for happiness down the road. You may also have bought into research that shows that a good part of our happiness is in our own hands. The final important message on happiness and success is that we can push ourselves significantly more than we think we can when it comes to making positive change happen.

As I often share with my clients, any kind of change, even if it is much desirable, involves pain. In fact, we know that even much desired change can be as painful as breaking bones. This is why as a coach I help clients develop these small incremental steps towards their change.

Even if experts tell us that certain change is not humanly achievable, we have all heard about ‘miracles’ where people have been able to overcome preconceived notions and realized their aspirations and goals. Be it the Bannister effect, where once the four-minute-mile record was broken, a slew of athletes were able to follow suit, or climbing Mount Everest without oxygen, or the first heart transplants. The story of Walt Disney  comes to mind who started an entire empire based on his mantra of “If you can dream it, you can achieve it. “

In my work as a coach I have seen shy introverts become gifted speakers, reluctant risk takers leave their current corporate position to launch their own start-up, and reluctant leaders embrace their authentic self and inspire their teams in the midst of organizational turmoil to stay the course and to deliver results beyond expectations. As Henry Ford once said so wisely: “If you think you can do it or think you can’t, in both cases, you’re right.”

Try this: In coaching as we work with our clients who struggle to make desired change happen, we often ask them to recall times in their own pasts when they were able to successfully overcome similar challenges. We then explore what strategies they used, what skills they employed to overcome hurdles, be they external or internal. A rather simple, but powerful technique that often results in clients to break through and to tap into their very inner strength they previously had simply been unaware of.


other people matter

October 11, 2012

by anne lueneburger

Two days ago, Chris Peterson died unexpectedly at he age of 62. A professor at the University of Michigan, he was among the 100 most-cited psychologists during the past 20 years and one of the founding fathers of the science of positive psychology. Together with U Penn Professor Marty Seligman, he took the lead on developing the Values in Action (VIA) personality assessment that analyzes and validates character strengths of individuals and is used around the world. But that is not why I am writing this entry today.

I most remember Chris Peterson as someone who changed the course of my life. When I enrolled in his positive psychology class, I did not really know much what to expect other than strong content taught by a man who had received numerous teaching awards at one of the leading universities in the US. And I did get that, but also got so much more. What I could not expect was sitting in a café in Manhattan, devouring the class book “A Primer in Positive Psychology” he had written. It reads a bit like the encyclopedia on positive psychology, comprehensive and substantive. It is also interwoven with backstage gossip in the foot notes, one of the few text books that made me laugh out loud in public (causing me to get funny looks from those around me), other times bringing tears to my eyes.

It was one of Peterson’s expressions he used in class, the importance of living “north of neutral” (in that positive zone, beyond the neutral zone as the absence of the negative), that inspired me to trade mark the name for what is now a coaching firm that serves leaders and executives around the world who want to lead more fulfilling, successful lives. As I asked for Peterson’s permission to do so, he responded in his typical low-key, humorous way: “I guess I am getting important if my catch phrases become urls – I hope you don’t sue me if I continue to use it.”

What I learned about positive psychology as part of Peterson’s course has inspired me to go out and learn more about this important scientific field. I believe it has made me a happier person, a more mindful friend and a more effective coach, allowing me to share what I have learned with my clients. Perhaps one of the key lessons that Peterson has sensitized me to is that “other people matter”. And while he gave me access to this wisdom in the form of research data, what is more is that he clearly walked the talk. Regardless of his fame, his intellect, and his experience, he was one of the most approachable, warm and caring professors I have ever had the privilege to be a student of.

Thank you, Chris Peterson. You continue to matter.

by carolyn mathews

Wisdom, I believe, separates good leaders from great leaders. That is one reason an article in the Sunday edition of The New York Times caught my eye. “Sharing the Wisdom of C.E.O.’s,” by Adam Bryant, provides lessons of five leaders Bryant has featured in his “Corner Office” column. The book, called “The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed,” shares lessons from interviews with 70 leaders about success and leadership. After that article appeared, Harvard Business Review featured an article called, The Big Idea: The Wise Leader in which the authors discuss what constitutes wise leadership.

I was curious what makes leaders wise. In her research, Concordia University professor Delores Pushkar explains wisdom is difficult to define. As with leadership, there are many ways to describe wisdom, though Pushkar and her research team have identified several hallmarks. Take a look at these qualities and you’ll understand why I consider wisdom to be a necessary component of a great leader: knowledge; deep understanding of human nature; life contentment; empathy; and perspective.

Can a leader be great without these hallmarks of wisdom? I know many leaders who have knowledge; in essence they are subject matter experts. But what about the other qualities Pushkar mentions as part of wisdom? Without empathy or personal well-being, for instance, I suggest that leaders remain experts in their field, but not necessarily great leaders. I wanted to know more about how positive psychology views wisdom and I found two explanations.  First, wisdom is one of the six virtues (core characteristics), identified by positive psychology researchers, to be highly valued by moral philosophers and religious thinkers across cultures. As a virtue, wisdom focuses on the acquisition and use of knowledge, according to acclaimed positive psychologists Christopher Peterson and Martin Seligman.

Wisdom, according to Peterson and Seligman, also reveals itself as a “character strength,” or the way in which we display our virtues. In this case, wisdom is defined as perspective, or “being able to provide wise counsel to others…”  This is one of the qualities Pushkar mentions in her research. According to Peterson and Seligman, those who have the character strength of perspective would describe themselves as:

>Possessing self-knowledge, and an accurate view of their strengths and weaknesses

>Using both feelings and rationale to make decisions

>Realizing larger patterns of meaning or relationship and seeing things from a wider perspective

>Having a strong need to contribute to others and often turned to for advice

>Using their personal standards as a guide for their behavior

Many of you would agree these descriptions are hallmarks for great leaders! These qualities are garnered through a combination of knowledge and experience, according to Peterson and Seligman, and not through intelligence and age. Despite the archetype of the “wise old leader,” Pushkar suggests age is irrelevant to wisdom. In terms of career, studies have shown that those who engage in career tasks in their late 30s and early 40s developed wisdom by their mid-40s. These tasks provide opportunities for crises to be successfully resolved, thereby adding to one’s wisdom (knowledge and experience).

Wisdom also helps us maintain a higher level of happiness, says Pushkar. Although chronic, extreme stress can detract from wisdom, generally speaking the buffering effects of wisdom can help us navigate the stressful times most of us encounter. Further, research indicates those who tend to be optimistic also tend to be wiser than their pessimistic peers.

There are simple things you can do to develop wisdom at work, according to Peterson and Seligman. Get involved! Find challenging career tasks and resolve them successfully. Find a mentor, or become one, and you will surely experience opportunities for perspective. Collaborate socially and take time to discuss and reflect. Wisdom is more than knowledge; it is also about perspective. Strive for wisdom and be a great leader!


Bryant, A. (2011, April 17). Distilling the wisdom of C.E.O.’s. The New York Times.

Concordia University (2011, April 8). What the world needs now? More wisdom. Science Daily. Retrieved April 18th, 2011, from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2011/04/110406122225.htm

Nonoka, I. &Takeuchi, H. (2011, May). The big idea: The wise leader. Harvard Business Review.

Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004). Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.