Category Archives: Philosophy

Dealing with Emotions as a Leader


As I’ve described in this blog, I am trained as an attorney and I am an introvert. I have always been focused on facts rather than emotions. As a result, I am not the most sensitive human being on the planet.

While this might have been a strength during most of the years I practiced law, it became a blind spot when I started managing human resources functions, particularly when I managed employee relations, which included quite a bit of employee and manager counseling.

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Image from Forbes

Early in my career, while I was still working as an attorney, I came to the realization that emotions are facts. While emotions are not tangible, they are nevertheless real. I had to incorporate the emotions of my clients, those of the parties and witnesses to lawsuits, and even the emotions of my co-counsel, opposing counsel, and the judges I encountered. If I did not successfully handle the emotional aspects of the case, I would not achieve the best result for my client.

Thus, I found myself babysitting (my word for it) witnesses in a major case, so that they were not overwrought by the time they had to testify. I listened to my clients vent when they felt they were being asked to pay too large a settlement, even when it was the rational thing to do. I maintained an even personality as much as I could with opposing counsel to diffuse their rants. I patiently explained the law to obtuse judges over and over again until they finally read the cases I had presented.

Managing my own emotions and those of others I encountered were not fun aspects of the job, but they were essential.

When I became responsible for employee relations, I realized my instincts on how employees would react to policy changes were not well-developed. If we were to communicate effectively why we needed to make these changes, I needed to find people with better instincts than I had. Fortunately, I had a man working for me who had long experience in the organization and who had excellent people skills. I learned very quickly to listen to him.

In fact, many times in my career I found it essential to let people with better skills than I had do their work. My role was to get out of their way and keep others out of their way as well.

It wasn’t about me. It wasn’t even about them. It was about getting the job done the best way we could. And that was another fact, even when it felt emotional.

A couple weeks ago, I read an article on the ever-excellent TLNT.com, “None of Us Are Rational, So Smart Leadership Means Learning to Deal With Emotions,” by Jacqueline Carter and Rasmus Hougaard, dated May 7, 2018. [Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter, The Mind of the Leader: How to Lead Yourself, Your People, and Your Organization for Extraordinary Results (2018)]

Mr. Hougaard and Ms. Carter say it far better than I can:

“emotions are neither good nor bad. . . . as leaders, it’s imperative that we understand the role of emotions, so we can connect with our people, not just on strategy and tasks but also on a fundamental human level. It’s only when we create emotional resonance between ourselves and our people that we enable true connectedness. Whether we’re aware of it — and whether we want to accept it or not — true engagement happens when people feel connected on an emotional level.

. . .

“. . . If we can distance ourselves from our emotions, we can observe them more objectively. With training, observing our emotions can be like watching a movie: You’re not the movie, and the movie is not you. In the same way, your emotion is not you, and you’re not the emotion. . . .

“If we face emotions neutrally and without ego, they lose their grip.”

Even as an analytical attorney untrained in human psychology, I understood these points intuitively. Thankfully, I was able to adjust my behavior to manage my emotions and those of people around me. Emotions are facts, and I dealt with them.

When have you had to deal with emotional situations at work that were uncomfortable for you?

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Filed under Human Resources, Law, Leadership, Management, Philosophy, Workplace

Resetting Goals—An Introspective Approach Yields Best Results


to-do-list-749304_640This year is almost 25% complete. When I came to that realization a few days ago, I panicked—I haven’t accomplished nearly a quarter of my plan for 2018.

I started off strong in January, completing two major projects that were due in February. But then a series of family health issues knocked me off track. I’ve managed to stay on top of daily responsibilities, and even to make progress on one major project that has an April deadline. However, I am far behind pace on another major project I had hoped to complete by June, and I don’t think I’m going to be able to make up the lost time.

I will have to reset some of my goals for the year.

Periodically, I find it is good to conduct a thorough self-assessment. My purpose when I do so isn’t usually to reassess annual goals, which is my current immediate need. I usually am trying to examine my life on a longer-term basis. This week, however, I decided that before I restructured my 2018 goals, I should look at the big picture of my life. I was intrigued when I saw the article “50 Tough Questions You Never Ask Yourself, But Should,” on Inc.com, by Marla Tabaka, and thought it would be a good vehicle for self-assessment.

Ms. Tabaka makes the point that personal growth begins with introspection. She says,

“If you want results, begin with what’s on the inside instead of pushing to control what’s on the outside.”

And then she lists fifty excellent questions for consideration.

The question I am focused on at the moment is #10:

“What are three things I want to pay closer attention to in 2018?”

This question addresses the need I have at the moment.

My answer:

  • My own health
  • The health of other family members
  • My current primary project (the one that’s behind schedule)

I was glad to note that the health issues that had preoccupied me for the last two months were, in fact, high priorities for the year. I was also unhappy to see that I was letting my other top priority slide.

In an effort to regain momentum on that primary project for the year, I might have to let other projects slip, including some of my regular obligations. I don’t like that reality, but there it is. Once I acknowledge that reality, I can make the necessary changes in how I spend my time to achieve the best results I can this year. And I can consciously decide which goals for 2018 will have to fall by the wayside, rather than letting the results happen without any thought on my part.

I notice that this blog is not one of my top three priorities for the year. I hope it will remain high enough on my list to continue my twice-a-month posting schedule. But if I put it on hiatus again (as I did last summer), I will tell readers honestly—it is slipping lower on my priority list.

What priorities do you need to change in your life? Which of the fifty questions in the article strike closest to home for you?

 

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Healthcare Providers Need to Engage in Systems Thinking


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I have written before (see here and here) about the adage “Every system is perfectly designed to get the results it gets,” a saying that apparently originated in the medical world.

In recent weeks, I have been personally involved in a medical situation that shows that healthcare providers need to bear this adage in mind. In the case I’ve seen, each doctor and nurse has done his or her specialist’s job well, but no one has considered the patient’s whole person or household environment. The result is that the patient and his family are suffering more than necessary.

This patient fell and incurred an orthopedic injury to his leg. The Emergency Room doctors and nurses did an excellent job of stabilizing him, then sent him home with the instruction to contact an orthopedic surgeon because surgery was likely to be necessary.

So the patient went home. With a spouse who weighed 70 pounds less than him. To a house without a bedroom on the main floor and with only a half bath on this floor that this patient couldn’t fit into with his leg immobilized. He managed to get upstairs, but could not get in or out of bed unassisted. Because he is up multiple times during the night, neither he nor his spouse has had a good night’s sleep since the accident. There is only so much that other family members and friends can do to help.

No one in the Emergency Room made any inquiries about the home situation the patient was going to, nor offered any help once the person left the ER.

The next morning, the patient contacted the orthopedic surgeon, someone who is highly recommended in the community. That office showed no sense of urgency in scheduling an orthopedic consult, even though they had the X-rays from the ER. It took pushing by the patient to get an appointment to see the surgeon that same week. After the office visit, surgery was scheduled fairly promptly, but it still took more than a week after the accident to repair the injury.

The surgery went fine. But in the Recovery Room, the nurses had the same approach as the ER staff had had—get the patient stabilized and out of here. No inquiries about the home situation or how to deal with the patient’s other medical conditions, now worsened by his lack of mobility.

In the post-op follow-up ten days after surgery, the patient mentioned another injury incurred during the accident (to his arm). The orthopedic surgeon took a brief look and ruled out a bone problem, but he made no inquiries that would diagnose a tendon or ligament issue. It was as if his approach was “I do bones; that’s it.”

During the time since the accident, the patient has seen two other specialists for other conditions. Both of them focused solely on their specialty, without considering the impact of immobility on the patient or his spouse.

Meanwhile, the patient and family members have learned to be more insistent on getting questions answered, such as “will this new treatment further reduce his mobility?” and “what can he do to improve his rest at night?”

disabled-728521_640But wouldn’t it be better if each of the doctors and nurses asked such questions and considered this patient to be more than a leg or a bladder or a prostate? Wouldn’t it be better if the medical profession saw the patient as a whole person?

The changes to the healthcare system in the last decade or so have only exacerbated the tendency to see patients as parts instead of a whole. Obamacare has not helped. Republican proposals have not helped.

Expertise exercised in a vacuum ceases to be expertise. And the system is perfectly designed to get the result it gets.

Have you experienced similar issues in your own medical situations?

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Happy Holidays: Take a Moment to Breathe


2017 has been a tumultuous year for many of us. As it ends, take a moment to breathe deeply. Savor and celebrate your accomplishments and joys.

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Happy Holidays!

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Alpha Dogs and Leadership


dogs-1231010_1280Because this blog was on hiatus all summer, I didn’t comment on the political stalemates and morasses during those months. And I’m not going to comment directly on the ongoing issues today. But what I saw over the summer—and what I continue to see this fall—reminds me of a situation I encountered many years ago involving “alpha dogs” in a corporate setting.

My work group attended a gender diversity program sometime in the mid-1990s. I was not in management at the time; I was one of several individual contributors who ranged widely in seniority. I was in the middle of the pack at the time.

One of the comments about gender differences that the facilitator made during this gender diversity session was that men often try to be the “alpha dog” in a meeting by one-upping the other men in the room. Women, on the other hand, care less if they are seen as the highest power in the room. (Keep in mind that this program took place decades before Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” philosophy became vogue.)

I might have forgotten this “alpha dog” comment, except that a few days after the diversity program, I was talking about it with a male colleague, one of the more senior employees in our group. He freely admitted, “That’s why I have problems with [our male boss]. He and I both want to be the alpha dog.”

I thought about it. He was right—these two men did both try to be top dog. And trying to be the alpha dog wasn’t working for my colleague, because he didn’t have the corporate authority to pull it off. He wasn’t the boss, but he often tried to be.

I made a deliberate decision. As a fairly young and introverted female, seeking to be the alpha dog wasn’t going to work for me either. Therefore, I would consciously act like I was NOT the alpha dog. I would not overtly try to one-up other people I encountered in the workplace. I would defer to others intentionally. I would seek to provide good service to my colleagues and clients, rather than to command them. That didn’t mean letting others step all over me, but it did mean not being arrogant or seeking top billing on projects.

I’ve written before about “servant leadership,” a philosophy that advocates leading by serving others. I didn’t hear of that concept until ten or more years after the 1990s gender diversity program, but it resonated with me when I learned about it.

How did servant leadership work for me?

Generally, it worked well, at least through the middle years in my career. Over time, there were more and more times when I had to take command and make decisions. And occasionally, I didn’t get as much credit for my work as I thought I should have. But those times were less frequent than one might expect.

However, there were times after I moved into senior corporate roles when more of a command approach might have worked better. There were definitely people—mostly men, but a few women—who took advantage of my understated approach or who thought me weak. I could usually deflect them by being the best prepared person in the room, but there were a few jerks who only understood power, who only thought highly of other “alpha dogs” and sought to be the “alpha dog” with everyone except the CEO. They were never my favorite people, but sometimes I did have to flex my style to deal with them effectively.

dogs-1231008_640Unfortunately, many of today’s leaders—particularly the partisans on both sides of the aisle in Washington—seem to be of the “alpha dog” mentality. One-up-man-ship is all they understand. And so our nation has become increasingly polarized. If more of them would exercise servant leadership, we would all be better off.

What leadership style have you generally used? When have you had to flex your style?

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Filed under Diversity, Leadership, Management, Philosophy, Politics, Workplace

Leadership and the Truth: Lessons from the Vietnam War


7UcgHxn-asset-mezzanine-16x9-mAfzizc.jpg.crop.480x270Like many Americans, I’ve been watching The Vietnam War, the documentary film series by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, which is currently available on PBS. I was a child during this era in history, and didn’t pay much attention to the news from the battlefields. I remember the protests in the U.S., and I remember the fall of Saigon, but I don’t remember much about the events leading up to the end of the war.

leadership sign 2I haven’t watched all the episodes in the series yet, but from the episodes I have seen, one of my prime take-aways is the importance of truth for leaders in any organization.

Avoiding the spread of Communism in Asia was an important objective for U.S. leaders in the early 1960s. We can argue today over how strategic Vietnam was, but the fact was that political and military leaders in many nations during that era were heavily influenced in their decision-making by the conversion of Eastern Europe into a Soviet bloc. Most of the populations in the U.S. and in Western Europe in these years supported their leaders’ goal of deterring Russian and Chinese expansion.

Despite the laudatory objective, the U.S. decisions in Vietnam went horribly wrong almost from the beginning. Failure of the political and military leaders to seek the truth and tell the truth were large factors in creating the fiasco that Vietnam became.

The need for truth flows in both directions in every organization. Leaders must seek the truth from as many sources as they can, and they must tell the truth in every word they utter. Truth-seeking and truth-telling apply to all interactions with subordinates, peers, superiors, customers, investors, and the public—in short, to every communication with internal and external stakeholders.

The Vietnam series is brutal in pointing out incidents where our military and political leaders did not seek out information from those with first-hand knowledge of conditions on the ground, where underlings feared to volunteer negative information that leaders didn’t want to hear, and where leaders lied or hid information from the public. As a result of these failures to seek truth and to tell truth, bad decisions were made for far too long, and these bad decisions were kept secret from the public who might have opposed the carnage sooner, had they known the facts.

There’s a saying about how generals tend to fight the last war. They learn lessons from that war, and use those lessons in the next conflict. But they might forget other lessons of history or they might see the current battle through the wrong lens because of their focus on the past. That was part of the problem in Vietnam.

Many corporations also fight the wrong problem because they do not see the current challenge clearly. They focus on the wrong competitor, the wrong customer, the wrong product or technology. Their vision is myopic, they don’t see the big picture.

Moreover, leaders in any organization sometimes forget the importance of truth. The reasons for not seeking or telling the truth might vary, but it seems to be part of the universal human condition to only hear what we want to hear and to only say what we wish was true. Part of the rationale is self-preservation, part is wishful thinking, part is a futile attempt to protect those who might be harmed by reality. In the end, however, the truth generally comes out.

Good leaders make an extra effort to seek and to tell the truth, even when it hurts. They look for multiple sources of input and they are candid and transparent in all communications. They realize that facing the truth sooner rather than later is usually best for the organization . . . and, in the long run, for their own reputations.

When have you seen avoidance of the truth cause problems in an organization?

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Is HR Still Relevant? Only If We Can Keep Up With the Speed of Change


HR wordleThis past summer, I read an article on TLNT.com asking “Is there still a need for HR?” Of course, as an Human Resources publication, TLNT.com answered yes.  And as a former HR executive, I think the answer is yes also.

Then I read another article on McKinsey.com on getting ready for the future of work. This article focused on the increase of artificial intelligence and what that will mean for organizations in the years ahead.  According to McKinsey, at least 30 percent of the activities associated with most occupations could be automated—including knowledge tasks.

It dawned on me that in my working career of thirty-some years, there have been two major shifts in what constitutes work for many people. The first shift arose with the computerization of what used to be manual tasks, vastly increasing the productivity of repetitive work. The second shift came with the speed of communications and data transfer, so that now many roles can be performed anywhere.

It could be that artificial intelligence will be a third momentous shift in work, if machines in the future will not only perform the processing tasks that humans now do, but also the thinking and conceptualizing roles that we have assumed differentiated human beings from non-human.

These huge changes in what constitutes work are significant because they have happened so rapidly. Shifts of this magnitude used to come only once in a century or every few centuries. Think of the Industrial Revolution, when machines started doing what human and animal labor had done before. Think of how locomotion shifted from wind or animal power to motorized power. We now move as fast as we can find power to move us—on land, water, air . . . and even space.

Why do I raise these subjects in a discussion about Human Resources?

HR signBecause to remain relevant in the future, HR must have ready the right talent the organization will need at the right time in the right place. We have barely dealt with the skill sets needed to handle digitization. We still don’t really have our arms around the globalization of the workforce permitting employees and those in the gig economy in disparate locations to form project teams that ebb and flow as the work requires. Yet we may soon be asked to manage the intersection between human and artificial intelligence, when most HR people have no understanding of the possibilities of AI.

And we need to help employees prepare themselves to adapt to changing and ever more complex roles. Job changes in the future will be less about moving from company to company in the same field and more about complete shifts in what work we do and how we do it.

Are HR’s abilities to predict the skill sets of the future sufficient to the task of helping employees keep up? I doubt it.

HR strategists today say that fostering organizational culture is one of the core strengths HR can bring to an organization. But are we prepared to develop a global culture that incorporates not only human capabilities but also includes AI in the work world of tomorrow? I doubt that also.

The McKinsey article argues that lifelong learning is the only way that humans will maintain their employability in the future. That goes for HR professionals as much as for any other worker.

As Jeff Dieffenbach, associate director, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Integrated Learning Initiative, is quoted as saying in the McKinsey article:

“While change is accelerating, one thing that is definitely not is the neuroplasticity of the brain. In other words, the rate of change in the world may have surpassed the speed at which the human mind can process those changes.”

That goes for HR brains as well as those of other workers. Frankly, I’m not sure HR will survive in a recognizable form. The machines may take over from us.

What do you see ahead for HR?

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