Leadership and Sir Ernest Shackleton

Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance ship was found in Antarctica this week after sitting at the bottom of the Weddell Sea for 107 years. I wrote this piece in 2013 after I read Alfred Lansing’s book called “Endurance.” It’s my most popular post and I felt it was timely to bring to light once again, Shackleton’s incredible grit and leadership. Enjoy!

“Men wanted for hazardous journey. Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in case of success”. Sir Ernest Shackleton

I just read Alfred Lansing’s book, “Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage.”  The book is about the voyage of the British ship “Endurance” in 1914 and, it’s leader, Sir Ernest Shackleton.  It is an amazing account of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition and how 28 men survived for 21 months after the ship was beset in the ice floes of Antarctica.  How does a man lead 27 men to safety in sub freezing temperatures, no digital equipment (not even a radio) and countless obstacles (including climbing for 36 hours over uncharted mountains without climbing gear); leadership and grit, that’s how.

The ship was first beset in the ice floes for 9 months and then, the pressure of the ice pack slowly (but surely) crushed the boat, so the crew of 28 had to take to the ice pack on the Weddell Sea.  The ship sank about 30 days later after the crew had taken most of the provisions and three life boats off the ship.  The rest of the odyssey involves 7 months of camping on ice, rowing on the open seas in lifeboats, breaking the group up and eventually, hiking uncharted mountains without any gore tex or ice picks to an eventual rescue of the entire group (every frostbitten one). 

This is what Shackleton taught me about leadership.

1.  Honest.  Shackleton was brutally honest in the expectations of the expedition (see quote above).   Safe return doubtful.  Only those who are up to the challenge are going to sign up.  All leaders can learn from this.  Don’t sell the job as something it isn’t.  If the work is tedious, say it.  If there is constant travel, be upfront.  Be honest when you are bringing someone on to your team.

2.  Team.  Shackleton built a cohesive multi-national team of 28.  He made an instant gut decision.  He asked Reginald James if he could sing (he could and was chosen).  Two Surgeons, a tried and true Navigator, Photographer, Artist, Seaman, Cook and Carpenter. He fit the team together like a puzzle. Great leaders do.  They don’t look for carbon copies of themselves, they look for complementary pieces.  Have a diverse team of talent and character with traits that don’t resemble you.

3. Decisive.  Shackleton made a decision and stuck to it.  There was no waffling.   When you decide to get off a breaking ice floe, you can’t turn back.  He adjusted the goal several times from one island to another but he never waffled.  The men knew that Shackleton could be counted on.  When you lead, be decisive.  Your folks are counting on you.

4.  Inclusive.  He was constantly seeking opposing viewpoints.  He would listen to other’s viewpoints whether it was which direction to go or how much food to dole out.  In the end, he would make the decision, but everyone would be heard.  When they were on the 7 day sail to Elephant Island, if one person was chilled, he ordered  hot beverages for all.  Inclusive leaders have their finger of the pulse of the group as a whole.

5. Delegate.   Shackleton delegated clearly, definitely and with no regrets.  He left Frank Wild in charge of 22 men on Elephant Island.  Everyone knew Wild was in charge and Shackleton left him there with full confidence that Wild would succeed.  He did.  Delegate projects with full confidence in your team.  Don’t waver or take it back.  Delegate with clarity.

6. Improvise.  Obviously they had to constantly improvise.  Wood from the sinking ship was used for shoe bottoms, blubber from penguins to light the lamps, lashing three men together to slide down a mountain face like a toboggan.  Shackleton and his men made do with what they had.  Don’t wait for the next software upgrade or next year’s budget to move the project forward.  Improvise with what you have now.

7. Faith.  Shackleton had unfailing faith and optimism.  He kept the more pessimistic and ornery folks in his tent, lest they infect the others.  You cannot survive 21 months in the bleakness of the Antarctic with little more than the clothes on your back, a compass and a stove without optimism.  Leadership is all about having undying faith that you can overcome any obstacle.

I have to say that as I read the book, I was stunned, and impressed with the insurmountable obstacles that they did overcome and for Shackleton’s heroic, unfailing, inspiring leadership.

Got Imposter Syndrome? Here Are 5 Fixes.

There have been countless times in my life where I felt like an imposter. When I was in Junior High, I was first flute in the All-State Orchestra (granted Delaware is a very small state). I was initially proud of making first chair only to be overwhelmed by feeling like I would be caught. Found out. Attending the Hotel School at Cornell University where I was a work study student feeling completely inadequate with my fellow upper crust students whose pedigree far outranked my own. My first job out of college as a manager for a catering company in Manhattan. I was a 21-year-old woman working in a basement with 25 men, some twice my age, trying to manage a fast-paced catering business where the only rule was to “yes” to any customer request (i.e., lunch for 100 people in 45 minutes). Every day in that basement was complete anarchy with four phone lines of incoming orders and trying to supervise a largely immigrant crew. I felt like I would be unmasked every day.

As written by Chris Palmer for the American Psychological Association, “Up to 82% of people face feelings of impostor phenomenon, struggling with the sense they haven’t earned what they’ve achieved and are a fraud (Bravata, D. M., et al., Journal of General Internal Medicine, Vol. 35, No. 4, 2020). These feelings can contribute to increased anxiety and depression, less risk-taking in careers, and career burnout.” 82% of people are feeling the same way as me?  This doesn’t surprise me because I coach people every day who struggle with these same feelings. This manifests in my clients as countless work hours, fear of delegation and perfectionism

Got imposter syndrome?  Here are 5 fixes:

  1. Shine a light.  It starts with acknowledging you are feeling inadequate, or you are harboring doubts. As Jack Kelly wrote for Forbes, “The first thing you should do is acknowledge these feelings when they arise. There’s no need to hide it from others or feel badly about harboring these thoughts. By confronting your self-defeating thoughts, it’s the start of taking proactive steps to change your mindset.” Turn on that light switch and make what is in the back of your brain into the light.  Acknowledging is the first step in addressing it.
  2. Acknowledge your accomplishments. It’s really easy to have amnesia about your accomplishments.  Did you grow up in a single parent home and manage to graduate from high school? Are you able to speak two languages? Have you been able to raise a child to adulthood? Did you thwart a deadly illness? Have you finished a 5k? Did you finally earn that certification you always wanted? I remember finally crossing the mile high bridge on Grandfather Mountain.  I was terrified, but I did it. Write down your accomplishments and take stock.
  3. Watch your self-talk. I find the easiest way to reframe self-talk is to use the third person.  So instead of saying “I’m an idiot”, I think “Cathy you’re an idiot”.  Seems harsh.  I would NEVER call anyone an idiot so why the heck would I call myself an idiot.  It’s similar to reframe it to what you would say to a friend.  As Palmer wrote, “Try to observe when your impostor feelings surface and how you respond to them.” Be compassionate in your self-talk.
  4. Let go of perfectionism. I’ve coached countless folks who struggle with perfectionism.  In my mind it’s the manifestation of imposter feelings.  So, they constantly work harder and longer to make their output as perfect as possible so that no one will find out that they are imperfect and, therefore, an imposter. Palmer wrote, “It may help to release yourself from rigid roles. For example, Orbé-Austin said people with impostor phenomenon often see themselves as helpers––people who come to the rescue. “Breaking free from those roles so you can be someone who doesn’t know it all or someone who can’t always help can allow us to be more robust people and professionals,” she said.” Perfection is failing, it’s suffocating and keeping folks stuck.
  5. Share your thoughts. Perhaps through therapy, a coach, or a trusted friend, share your imposter feelings with someone you can confide in. I find when I coach that when my client actually says something out loud (instead of rumination), it will bring insight.  Saying it out loud makes it real and prompts examination. As Kelly wrote, “By sharing with others, it will release the pent-up burden. You’ll quickly find out that you’re not alone and this is shared by many other professionals. You will feel a big sense of relief once you find out that it’s commonplace, you’re in good company and it’s not just you.” Share your thoughts so others can weigh in and help examine their validity.

I believe that comparison is at the root of most imposter feelings. I envy my neighbors new Tesla, my friend’s vacation to the Alps, or my sister’s promotion to Vice President. Comparison is the thief of joy and will keep me in the imposter zone. As a friend said to me recently, “Stay in your lane.” Focus on what’s in front of you and your experience and let others focus on their lanes. How do you address imposter feelings?

5 Surprising Observation about Durham

I moved to Durham, North Carolina about 3 weeks ago. I’ve previously lived in Goldsboro, North Carolina for the last twenty years and in three weeks, I’ve been surprised that a 60-mile difference in location in the same state would be so different. My good friends will tell you that I’ve had my eye on Durham for over ten years. My daughter graduated from Duke University and my son graduated from the NC School of Science and Math, both of which are in Durham. I think the idea originated when I was sprawled on a blanket in the middle of Duke’s East Campus, listening to my daughter perform in the Duke University Symphony Orchestra. There, among the Georgian architecture and the sprawling green grass, hundreds of folks on camp chairs and blankets listened as the orchestra played showtunes masterfully. It was captivating. I remember thinking, there and then, I would like to be walking distance to campus and be able to take in lectures and performances whenever my heart desired.

One of at least seven tiny lending libraries on the Durham Greenways

My father had always espoused the merits of living near a university. Ironic that he himself never did so, even in retirement. But in January of 2022, I had nothing to hold me to Goldsboro. I had retired from my full-time job, sold my lake side home and my son had moved from Miami to Charlotte. It was time to take the leap and I have been more than pleasantly surprised.

My 5 surprising observations about Durham:

Greenways

My home is in the Woodcroft neighborhood of Durham. No, it’s not walking distance to Duke or UNC but it has an extensive system of greenways. I had no idea there were upwards of 30 miles of greenway within the Woodcroft and New Hope Valley neighborhoods with numerous pet waste stations and tiny lending libraries along the route. For the first week that I lived here, I could walk in any direction without having to walk on a shoulder of a roadway. 70% of the greenways are lined with trees with homes backing up to it, without cars racing by at 40 miles an hour. I was really surprised to find a Calisthenics workout park at the crossroads of three greenways without any way to get there except on foot. Like a hidden workout gym without any parking. I’m super excited to experience the transformation of the seasons here. 

Quiet

My home is quiet. I am 1 mile from Interstate 40, 10 miles from Raleigh/Durham International Airport and 100 yards from Woodcroft Parkway. I don’t hear any traffic, flights or most importantly, trains. Yes, it could be insulation on the house or the location of my bedroom, but I am amazed that I moved from the sleepy little town of Goldsboro with its 4 AM trains and 10 PM fighter jet maneuvers from Seymour Johnson Airforce base to the silence of the “big” city. 

Food

I’ve been a vegan (plant-based) for over 3 years. Trying to eat plant-based east of Interstate 95 is always a challenge. I can’t think of one restaurant in the entirety of Wayne County (where Goldsboro is located) that is a vegetarian, let alone, vegan restaurant. Now, when I search “vegan restaurants near me”? There are 23. 23 restaurants that cater to my lifestyle choice. There is also an array of grocery stores within a 10-minute drive, everything from Whole Foods to Harris Teeter, Wegmans, Sprouts or Fresh Market. All these stores have entire sections of plant-based food. Amazing.

Wildlife

On one of our first walks on a greenway, I was taken aback by the broad-winged hawk, sitting motionless on top of a birdhouse. I felt like they were checking me and my dog, Baci out. I ran into three deer crossing a greenway and there has been a cacophony of bird song as we meander on the trails. Perhaps, most importantly of all, there are a multitude of squirrels to bait my dog Baci. I’m not sure what made me think that Goldsboro had the corner on the market for squirrels, but Durham has not disappointed.

Diversity

On my walks with Baci, we have seen every age, gender, ethnicity, and color. There are young men walking their dogs, old men running at 6 AM with headlamps on, elderly women sitting on one of the many benches along the greenway, a young couple with a newborn in a stroller, foreign middle-aged couples debating in French, and the young father with his daughter riding a Strider bike. What is fascinating for me is that almost all are quite friendly. Most folks are quick to smile, wave or share greetings. Perhaps I had assumed it was more like a big metropolitan city, where most folks stare blankly forward, but these Durham-ites are friendly. 

I think this is all surprising because Durham County is three times the size of Wayne County.  I wouldn’t expect it to have greenways, food choices and wildlife that are so accessible and yet still maintain a quiet, friendly environment with access to major universities and an international airport. I am surprised but happy with my decision to move.

How to Decide on Happiness

I have struggled over the last few years with finding happiness. I have strained, pushed, and worked on finally arriving at the railroad station, boarding the rail car called Happiness. Having taken this very circuitous route, I’ve come to realize: it’s not a destination; it’s not arriving or departing. It’s not being on standby. The thing is that it’s always been in me. It can be in me right now. It’s funny because as I write this, my dog Baci just relaxed into my lap as I wrote that sentence. She isn’t struggling any more; she is just deciding that laying next to me is perfect. And that is just perfect with me.

I recently read Michael Neill’s The Space Within. It’s a thought-provoking book about just letting things be. About giving up control and focusing on what is. To letting go of your thinking and worrying and just letting things be. I think this is about just deciding to be happy right now. Just let life work itself out and yet embrace happiness now. It doesn’t take a milestone like buying a house or the divorce to be final or for you to complete the marathon; be happy right now. The key is to decide. So go ahead and decide on happiness right now.

Here is how to decide on happiness:

Happiness is not the goal

This seems counterintuitive. If you view happiness as the goal, you never find it.  There is always one more hurdle to jump over. One more thing to check off the list.  You never seem to arrive. I have the new car but I won’t be happy until it’s paid off.  Once the car is paid off, then I’ll need to get new tires. Once I get new tires, then the brakes will need replacing. There is always one more thing before happiness is ours, right? The finish line keeps getting extended. We never achieve satisfaction. We never ever arrive. Quit focusing on happiness being the goal.

Happiness is not dependent on others

I can remember thinking as a kid that I would be happy when I found the love of my life or when I had children. Basing your happiness on someone outside of yourself will lead to disappointment. It all starts with you. When it’s dependent upon others, others disappoint. They let you down and then your happiness evaporates. When you can find it in yourself, there is no disappointment. There is only your mindset. If my dog wants to snuggle next to me or not. If my lover tells me they love me or not. If my child gets the job, or graduates from college or not. Happiness is within me and is self-created.

Happiness is not about getting what you want

As Neill writes, “The secret to happiness is simply this…your happiness does NOT depend on getting what you want.” This means that similar to The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy always had home in her heart. She just needed to tap into it. Happiness is within you right now. You don’t need to get the next thing: The new car, house, jacket or coffee maker. Happiness does not exist in the striving for what you want but rather in you right now. Let go of the wishlist and be happy right now.

Happiness is not in the doing

Neill writes, “If you are doing things in order to be happy…you’re doing them in the wrong order.” For me this means to be happy while doing. It starts with the mindset of being happy right now. Start with being happy. Start between the ears. Doing will follow. Just start with a smile on your face and bliss between the ears. Neill suggests looking for the space between words. It’s difficult to look for the space between words when you start looking for it. It’s in the space. That pause. That moment where the infinite is. For me that is being present. Not multitasking. Not looking at your phone. Just be.

Happiness is not a short cut

Neill espouses, “By taking the time to live life in the slow lane, we quickly experience a deeper, more profound experience of contentment.” I opted for a walking meeting with a coworker of mine. The meeting took at least 30 minutes longer than I had expected. The thing is, I connected with the coworker and found out about some recent health issues she was having. I only had thirty minutes on my schedule but the walk and the conversation led to places I didn’t expect or anticipate. It’s letting go of control and letting the path unfold as it needs to. No need to rush, take short cuts or push through. Take the long way, the slow lane and don’t miss a thing.

I wrote myself a note in the Silence Course I took a few years ago. The first item on the note was to smile more. Several people at the course had told me what a beautiful smile I had and how it lit up my face. We all have beautiful smiles. We all need to smile more often. Don’t wait to smile or be happy. Be happy right now. Smile right now. It’s infectious. Are you happy right now?

Are You Alright…Right Now?

I bet you are. Mostly because if you are reading this you are not being chased by the police, or an elephant or even a shark. If you are in the middle of a major medical procedure like heart bypass or having your gall bladder removed, you are probably not reading this. The truth of the matter is, most of the time you are alright right now.

I’ve been reading Just One Thing by Rick Hanson. It’s a book of simple practices to add to your life to develop a buddha brain. A buddha brain, as defined by Dr. Hanson, is using neuroscience and emotional balance to create happiness, love and wisdom. Couldn’t we all use a dose of that? Well, this is lesson 42, which is titled: “Notice that you’re alright right now.”

Here is how to implement this into your own life:

Pause.  As I write this, I’ve recently moved to a new city, I’m trying to make sure I’ve shut down all the connections from my prior apartment and am worried about setting up the new apartment. There are many unknowns like who should be my dentist, where is the cheapest gas, should I bother the landlord about the broken towel rack and what about a new massage therapist? I know you have similar preoccupations. It may be a medical decision or the unknown leak under your car. There is something preoccupying your head. Press pause. Stop. This very instant. You may think you don’t have time, but unless you are in the middle of performing brain surgery, you have time to pause. So pause.

Sense.  Now that you have stopped your monkey brain from ping ponging from issue to problem to disaster to worry, scan your body. How is your big toe doing? Still there? Any pain? What about your ear lobes? Still hanging in there? Slight pain in your back from that workout yesterday? Ok. But you are doing okay for the most part. Sense it. After I read this lesson last night, I was snug under the covers of my bed. That’s a wonderful feeling. Sense the moment. Right now.

Stock.  Take stock in the moment right now. Is there a roof over your head? Do you have food in the fridge? Shoes on your feet? People you love and care about? When you take stock, you figure out that it’s not so bad. In the past few months, I have gone down the rabbit hole of catastrophizing my financial situation. When I do that, I am diminished. Reduced. Small. A victim. But when I take stock in the moment? I am a badass. I have the tiger by the tail. How would you rather feel? I thought so. Grab the tiger by the tail and take stock in how much you have.

Relax. As Dr. Hanson writes in Psychology Today, “This background of unsettled-ness and watchfulness is so automatic that you can forget it’s there. So see if you can tune into a tension, guarding or bracing in your body. Or a vigilance about your environment or other people. Or a block against completely relaxing, letting down, letting go.” This is going to take practice. We are so hardwired for scanning the environment for threat that relaxing into the moment is against our biology. Feel your shoulders, let them sag. Relax your jaw. Let your thoughts go like balloons into the blue sky. Breathe. Try it. I’ll wait. There is no rush.

So how did that feel? Pretty good, huh? Check in throughout the day. Is everything alright right now? Maybe it’s at the top of the hour. Maybe it’s when you wash your hands. The important thing is just to notice

6 Ways to be an Engagement Wizard

The Engagement Wizard

I think so many businesses, in today’s economy, figure employees “should be happy they have a job.” The truth is that, according to Inc. magazine, 70% of your employees are job hunting. They might smile and nod and laugh at your jokes, and at night they are on Indeed and asking for recommendations on LinkedIn.  Their resumes are up to date and they are ready to jump ship at the first sign of a decent paying job. They aren’t just looking for more money; they want a place that encourages engagement.  As Dan Pink espouses in his book Drive, “autonomy, mastery and purpose” are the ingredients for the Engagement Wizard.

The Engagement Wizard is the secret to holding onto those employees who are phoning it in while they search for greener, autonomous pastures. It is far better to employ some engagement tactics to hold onto your veteran employees than to search out a perceived better fit. I realize that some folks are too far gone to turn around and they are the poison in the kool-aid.  Employing a few tactics to create engagement for those who are salvageable, is well worth the effort when you figure that turnover can cost you anywhere from 50 to 200 % of the positions salary (and the replacements likely to cost you 10 to 20% more that the incumbent anyway).

So what are the techniques of the Engagement Wizard? Here are a few:

1. Thumb.  Quit keeping your employees tightly under your thumb.  It’s time to loosen the reigns.  As Dan Pink said at a conference, no one ever said “my favorite boss was the guy who breathed down my neck”.  People leave bosses.  If you are dictating an employee’s every movement and deed and watching the clock to make sure they are constantly at the grind stone, your employee will not be engaged. Loosen up your thumbs.

2. Don’t prescribe.  You should not view yourself as the doctor who is prescribing all the answers.  As Liz Wiseman said in her book “Multipliers”, you want to shift from being the Tyrant who has all the answers to the Liberator who is listening.  Listen; don’t talk.  This encourages the autonomy that Dan Pink prescribes.  If your employee is thinking for themselves, they are happier.  If you don’t believe me, tell your partner how to make the bed.  See how that goes over; and if they ever make the bed again.  Don’t prescribe.

3. Learning.  One of the downfalls in the recent economy is the slashing of training budgets.  We keep the Sales and Marketing budget status quo, and cut the non-essential training and development budget.  This, especially for Millennials, is a bad idea.  Employees, who have a “Growth Mindset” as espoused by Carol Dweck, are constantly looking to learn new skills.  “The Investor” as written by Liz Wiseman is the leader who is investing in resources for their team.  Encourage learning so that your employees are gaining “Mastery”.

4. Monkeys.  Delegate the monkey (as in task, project or duty) and check up on their care and feeding.  Leaders need to delegate and give ownership to their team.  This is another trait of Wiseman’s “The Investor”.  You can’t develop Pink’s “Mastery” without letting go of the monkeys.  This doesn’t mean you aren’t responsible for checking in on the monkeys, however you shouldn’t be the one filling the water dish.  Delegate the monkeys.

5. Big Picture.  Does your team know the big picture?  Jon Gordon at a recent conference suggested handing out 3 X 5 cards to all your employees and asking what the purpose of the company was.  What would your team answer?  We all need to know the purpose of the organization for which we work.  It is much easier to align with an organization and be engaged when we know what the purpose it.  If you answer, “To make money”, your team is not engaged.  Make sure they know the Big Picture.

6. Non-Commissioned Work.  One of the best examples of how effective autonomy is to creating better outcomes was a study that Pink refers to in his book “Drive”.  They found that in a blind evaluation (they didn’t know which art work was commissioned versus non-commissioned) paintings that were commissioned (i.e. I want it to match my couch, I want flamingos and it needs to be 6 feet wide) were of less quality and creativeness as opposed to non-commissioned work.  So make sure your team has some time to just create instead of keeping them “in the box.”  It’s not practical to have all non-commissioned work all the time, however some time left to one’s own devices is critical to engagement.

Once you’ve found your magic wand, get out of the way.  You will be amazed at what folks can do if they are given the freedom to find their own path.   Find your Engagement Wizard and start waving the magic wand.

5 Secrets to Managing Up

I’ve been a leadership coach for over ten years.  Most of my clients are either middle managers or high potentials and one of the biggest issues clients bring to me is how to manage up.  Managing up can be described as a method of career development that’s based on consciously working for the mutual benefit of yourself and your boss.  It can be a struggle for newly promoted managers or newly acquired managers or individual contributors looking for a leg up on the next project or promotion.  Interacting with your boss can be fraught with insecurity and vulnerabilities.  On one hand you want to be confident and knowledgeable, but you also don’t want to step on any toes or overreach. You want to be persuasive but not overbearing.  It’s a delicate balance.

Here are my five go to tools for managing up:

Power Pose

Ever since I read Amy Cuddy’s book, Presence, and viewed her Ted Talk on the power pose, I have suggested it to my students taking the SHRM-SCP exam, my clients applying for a new position and to my clients who are headed into a managing up conversation with their boss.  Basically, the mind follows what the body says.  If you stand like Wonder Woman or Superman (think hands confidently on your hips, shoulders back, feet shoulder width apart and head held high) for two minutes, your brain starts to follow what your body is telling it, i.e., you are a bad@$$. I have personally done this before a first date, in a bathroom stall before a job interview, and right before a public speaking engagement.   It’s been proven that your cortisol (stress hormone) goes down and your testosterone increases.  Increases in testosterone helps improve mood and health in both men and women.  Before you head into that uncomfortable conversation on getting on that plum project, try the power pose.

What would it take?

Over thirty years ago, I wanted to get a promotion to a General Manager position for the restaurant chain I was working for at the time. I knew it was between me and a guy named Randy. Randy had more longevity with the company and we both had recently been through a management development course. I set up a meeting with my boss’ boss and said “What would it take for me to be the next General Manager?” He suggested a few things like learning the inventory system so I could handle month end on my own.  Inside of three months, I was promoted over Randy.  I firmly believe that if I hadn’t asked “What would it take?” I never would have gotten that promotion. From reading the book “How Women Rise”, I know that women can assume that their boss knows about their hard work, merits and aspirations.  By asking, “What would it take?” you are clearly putting a stake in the ground of what you want and asking for support in getting there.

Third person

Talking about yourself in the third person can help control your nerves before having a one-on-one with your boss.  It’s easy when we use self-talk in the first person to trash your self-esteem.  “I can’t believe I’m late again, I’m an idiot!” “Ugh, I’m never going to get that promotion, I’m not good enough.” When I switch to the third person, I’m more careful, positive and respectful as if I’m talking to a good friend. ” Cathy, you’ve got this.” It’s also helpful in keeping rumination at bay.  It puts distance between you and your objective and calms your nerves.

Excited and Curious

I’ve learned to rephrase anxiety or concerns into excitement or curiosity.  It’s a way to reframe from disempowering thoughts like “I’m too nervous to talk to my boss about the widget project” to empowering thoughts like “I’m excited to talk to my boss about the widget project.” I change my self-narrative from “I’m afraid to move to a new town” to “I’m curious to move to a new town.” The use of the language we use in our head can be either debilitating or empowering.  I try to use empowering ones.

A few strong points

I recently read Think Again by Adam Grant. In the book he takes a look at Harish Natarajan who has won three dozen debate tournaments.  One of the key takeaways from Natarajan was to focus in on just a few solid points to persuade your audience, in this case, your boss. Before reading the book, I could barrage my boss with twelve reasons why we should add a new benefit for our employees.  It turns out that if there is weakness in a single reason, it causes collateral damage to the rest. The audience (your boss) focuses on the one weakness.  If you base your rationale on one or two solid reasons versus eleven good reasons and one weak reason, the solid reasons win out.  It’s quality versus quantity.  Focus on one or two strong points when having the managing up conversation.

It’s ironic that most of these secrets are about managing yourself and your own mindset instead of managing your boss or your boss’ boss. Heading into a conversation with your boss is more of an inside game on controlling your clarity of thought and emotions through your own self talk. What are your secrets to managing up?

4 Ways to Harness Your Inner Voice

I’ve been reading a terrific book by Ethan Kross called Chatter. It delves into harnessing one’s inner voice.  What struck me initially is that there was a study on whether folks believed they had a voice in their head.  My inner voice was thinking, “Well no, duh, of course we all have an inner voice in our heads.  And then I thought…wow…are there really people out there without a running narrative on what they want to do next, what they would have done differently and reliving embarrassing moments, over and over and over again?”  Turns out there are certain medical conditions that cause a quieting of the inner voice; but then I think, that would be awful.  So apparently, I want the inner chatter in my head, I just want to be able to use it to enhance my life instead of driving me down an anxiety rabbit hole.

As Kross writes, “However it manifests itself, when the inner voice runs amok and chatter takes the mental microphone, our mind not only torments but paralyzes us. It can also lead us to do things that sabotage us.” I love the image of my self-critic running around with a microphone and how much I want to either turn down the volume, or hopefully, throw the microphone out. 

4 ways to harness your inner voice:

  1. Journal.  I have personally found this to be very beneficial.  When my ex-husband turned my world upside down, I wrote reams of vitriol words to exorcise him out of my head.  There is no need to edit or summarize or be grammatically correct.  I just dumped everything out on paper. I wrote to myself for myself as well as to forgive myself for my misguided trust. I find that writing on paper is best for me and as reported by Aytekin Tank for Fast Company, “Virginia Berninger, a professor emerita of education at the University of Washington, says the same: “When we write a letter of the alphabet, we form it component stroke, by component stroke, and that process of production involves pathways in the brain that go near or through parts that manage emotion.” Writing either in a journal or on sheets of paper really helped me turn down the inner voice.
  2. Fly on the wall. Recall past bad experiences through the vantage point of a fly rather than from your own eyes.  Adyuk and Kross studied the fly-on-the-wall effect in the laboratory. As written in APS, “In one series of experiments, for example, they asked volunteers to recall an intensely unpleasant experience—one that made them either very sad or very angry. Then they gave different volunteers different instructions. Some were told to visualize the experience through their own eyes, to immerse themselves in the sadness or anger and try to understand the feelings. Others were instructed to take the perspective of a fly on the wall—and with that perspective understand the feelings of that “distant self.” Those who experienced it from their own perspective, ended up reliving the bad experience.  Those who took on the fly perspective were able to be more subjective and analytical and were able to sustain this weeks later and, in many cases, had lower blood pressure.
  3. Second or third person.  When I coach clients, I’ve suggested using the second (you) or third (Suzy) person perspective when coping with challenges.  As Kross posits, “Use distanced self-talk. One way to create distance when you’re experiencing chatter involves language. When you’re trying to work through a difficult experience, use your name and the second-person “you” to refer to yourself.” I’ve noticed myself using this since reading the book. I’ve been in the middle of moving and I can start to get overwhelmed by the work I still need to do but I find myself saying, “You’ve got this, Cathy.  Step by step.” I find myself to be much more motivated and positive when my inner dialogue is focused on myself as a friend or third person.
  4. 10 years. When I first got sober, I used a program called the 30-day sobriety challenge and one of the most impactful tools was a meditation wherein I visualized myself in 10 years if I kept drinking alcohol. I rarely think about my future self and the impact of what I’m doing currently on what lay down the road. When I coach clients and they have a difficult decision or conversation pending I use a tool called 10:10:10. This is a concept developed by Suzy Welch for decision making. “Here’s how it works. Every time I find myself in a situation where there appears to be no solution that will make everyone happy, I ask myself three questions: What are the consequences of my decision in 10 minutes? In 10 months? And in 10 years?” So, when inner dialogue starts nit picking or ruminating about how much I disagree with a recent corporate decision or deciding on a big purchase or moving to a larger city;  I ask my inner voice to think about what Cathy ten years in the future will think.

Kross refers to distancing throughout the book.  All of these methods require, in a metaphoric sense, to step out of your brain, your own self, by either by dumping it on paper outside of yourself, taking on a different, outside perspective as a fly, or third person, or by time traveling into the future. In all four ways the microphone is turned down and a different view is presented. How do you harness your inner voice?

This is Your Brain on Venting

So it turns out that venting is bad for your brain.  Is nothing sacred? I like to complain once in a while; unload all of my jabs and retorts in a long diatribe on how I’ve been wronged by a coworker or whomever.  Just ask my daughter.  I’m really good at rehashing every dirty detail.  But you know what? You are embedding your neuro-pathways with bad messages.  You are reinforcing the way you see the world and entrenching a poor mindset. 

During the Results Based Coaching training by the NeuroLeadership Group, the facilitator, Paul McGinniss said “Venting is like pouring gasoline on the problem”.  That’s a powerful metaphor.  If you think about it, aren’t you just reliving the emotional roller coaster and rehashing the same problem.  In David Rock‘s book, Quiet Leadership, he writes, “Unfortunately, drama is a place where many people in organizations are stuck and find it hard to get out of on their own”. You’re in a closed loop and running over the same territory.  This will not help you take a step forward or start building new connections.  You will not find solutions while venting.  

So here are some ideas on how to move off the venting loop and onto a more solutions based focus:          

1. Empathy.  Respond to the complaint with empathy.  This is a key principle from DDI, “listen and respond with empathy.”  The minute you label the feeling someone is conveying to you, let them know your heard them and that it’s time to move on.  “I hear you are frustrated because you didn’t get the raise you wanted” or “I understand you’re disappointed because your boss didn’t use your idea”.  End of loop.  The complainer has been heard.  To move on – Use Empathy.

2. Example.  Set the example.  If you sit around pissing and moaning all day, so will your coworkers, family members and friends.  So stop.  If you must complain that there is a thunderstorm in the middle of your outdoor wedding; say you are upset with the weather and move on.  Dwelling on it isn’t going to change the weather.  Be the optimist and set the example.

3. Ideas. Ask for some ideas.  Become solution focused.  So when your coworker is angry at their boss because she didn’t include him on the safety committee, ask “What do you want to do about that?”  If you are dealing with a chronic whiner, they will end the conversation and seek out other chronic whiners.  If they are willing to look for solutions; you have just helped them move on to new pathways.  You’ve helped break the loop.  Help people find some new ideas.

4. New club.  This might mean joining a new club.  The complainers club is enormous and omnipresent in the world of work.  You might need to hang out with a more optimistic bunch and the pickings might be slim.  The glass half full folks are probably smiling and approachable.  The half empty folks are gossiping and driving the bus over all their co-workers when their back is turned.  You know if they talk about everyone else, they are talking about you.  Stay away and join a new club

5. Silence.  When folks start their complaining and look for reassurance, keep silent.  Complainers aren’t really happy unless you are chiming in with agreement.  Don’t add fuel to the fire.  Let them build their own fires and walk away.  If you aren’t willing to be sucked into their drama, they will find someone else who is more willing.  According to an article by Melinda Zetlin called Listening to Complainers is Bad for Your Brain, “Research shows that exposure to 30 minutes or more of negativity–including viewing such material on TV–actually peels away neurons in the brain’s hippocampus.”  “That’s the part of your brain you need for problem solving,” Trevor Blake says. “Basically, it turns your brain to mush.” Keep silent and walk away.

6. Bite. You’re going to need to bite your tongue.  If you start down the road of complaining, take a different direction.  So what if your team just lost?  It happens.  Don’t complain about the blind ref or the guy who cheated, try “gee wasn’t the weather just great” or “we had really good seats”.  Take the high road.  Over time, you’ll start having folks in your club.  People are attracted to optimism.  They might just want to build some of their brain cells with you.  Share the wealth and bite your tongue on negativity.

This post was difficult to write because my daughter is likely to hold me accountable for this information.  I hope I can live up to her expectations and look forward to giving up my venting and to start building those brain cells.

Got Pandemic Overwhelm? 4 Fixes.

I wrote this a year ago and now as I repost this Omicron is making it’s way across the U.S. and I have retired. I bought the bubbles mentioned and the dollar it cost was worth the smiles!

As I write this, it is February of 2021, a year into the pandemic. I thought this whole thing would have blown over by now. I thought we would be back in the communal workplace, making business travel plans and I’d be free to use my passport. Nope. In the last week or so, I’ve noticed articles about how this pandemic could last for upwards of 5 years. What?

My dog is great company and a terrific, if not needy, co-worker but I want to get back to the office. I want to run into random co-workers walking down the hall or by the water cooler. I want to be able to reach out to that co-worker who lost their son last year and find out how they are coping. I want to see the latest pictures of several coworkers’ grandchildren. I want to be planning the annual field day events. Nope. It is not going to happen. Not anytime soon. Perhaps never.

By now, like me, you have probably adapted to the “new normal”. You have your home workspace figured out, you have your Zoom background dialed in, you have your wardrobe culled down to Zoom tops, yoga pants, slippers, and earrings you can wear under a headset. Now in the winter of our discontent, we need to figure out ways to punctuate the work day so that we are not working ten-hour days without a break. We can’t cheat and do back-to-back Zoom calls. I have some ideas on how to close the stress loop even if you can’t get outside.

Here are 4 fixes for winter pandemic overwhelm:

  1. Move.  As in, move your body. Let’s assume you live in Minnesota and it’s minus 20 degrees outside. There is snow everywhere and ice on the sidewalks. Figure out a way to move inside. Put your phone on a charger in a separate room (this will also stop you from blindly screen scrolling). Put dishes or clothes or groceries away, one item at a time.  Walk to the farthest bathroom when you need to wash your hands. Watch a yoga YouTube video (like this one from my yoga expert friend Susannah), dance to my boyfriend Roy’s favorite dance music, “Tighten Up” by Archie Bell & The Drells, stretch, lift weights or do pushups. As written by Michelle Bihary on Harvard Business Review, “If space is a big constraint, try standing at your desk to improve your metabolic health. Alan Hedge, Professor of Ergonomics at Cornell University, recommends using a 20-8-2 breakdown to guide you: 20 minutes of sitting, 8 minutes of standing, and 2 minutes of moving for every 30 minutes at work.” In order to move, you will likely need to revamp your schedule to give at least ten-minute breaks between meetings.
  2. Mindfulness.  Mindfulness does not require being a monk in a monastery. It does not mean you empty your head of all thought. It is really about just being in the moment and paying attention to your body (instead of your head…i.e. thoughts).  I have been trying out three apps recently: HeadspaceCalm and Insight Timer. A trend in all of their meditations, and sleep stories (yes, they have sleep stories you can drift to sleep on); the trend is inhaling for 4 beats, holding for 4 beats and exhaling for 6 beats. If you can do this for 5 cycles, you will be less stressed and overwhelmed. It closes the stress loop. As Bihary wrote, “A simple practice is to take five deep breaths, five times per day. When you concentrate on breathing deeply (as we do in yoga), you’re disengaging yourself from distractions, lowering your heart rate, ingesting more oxygen into the lowest part of your lungs, and stabilizing your blood pressure — in turn, lowering your stress level.” Being mindful can be as simple as taking a break to intentionally breath deep.
  3. Grateful.  Being grateful reduces stress. Bihary espoused, “Gratitude practices and expressing appreciation have long-lasting positive effects on the wiring of our brains. Research shows that gratitude takes our attention away from toxic emotions by helping us focus on more comforting ones. People who consciously count their blessings tend to be less depressed. When we feel grateful, it increases our levels of dopamine and serotonin, the neurotransmitters responsible for making us feel happy and enhancing our moods.” My gratitude journal has morphed over the years from an evening to a morning event, from three things to ten things; and now to my current habit of writing five things I’m grateful for (almost always people or my dog, Baci) and one thing I’m grateful I actually physically did like “drove safely, hiked or maintained my sobriety.” Figure out what suits you and give it a try.
  4. Connection. There are those out there who have way too much connection with their spouse, roommate or homeschooling children. By far I have seen that the folks who seem to have suffered the most with working from home are those that live alone. I live and work alone from home for most of the week and am fortunate to spend the weekends with my boyfriend. Finding ways to connect can be tricky depending on the current local requirements. Let technology be your friend. I am super lucky that my daughter Natalie has started calling me weekly via FaceTime. It makes a huge difference to see as well as hear her. My family has orchestrated a few family Zoom calls that have been a huge bright spot as well. In the book Burnout, connection is one of the many cures for closing the stress cycle although the book was written pre-pandemic. Figure out ways to connect with coworkers and family on a more casual basis like virtual trivia nights or family feud. Make time to connect with others on things besides production reports and customer complaints. 

Bihary had another stress booster that I haven’t tried out yet but will throw out as another suggestion: blowing bubbles. I love blowing bubbles but since I don’t have a grade school kid in my house, I haven’t stopped at a store to pick a bottle up. I’m putting it on my shopping list though! If there is something that incorporates deep breathing and being in the present moment it is the magic, fun and fragility of blowing bubbles. I hope you try a few of these fixes for the winter doldrums. If there is any way to get outside for even fifteen minutes, that is super effective too. What is your favorite winter doldrums fix?