I speak to organizational leaders every day who want to eliminate the obstacles that block their employees from excelling. They want engaged employees who care, create and thrive in their organizations. These leaders are full of ideas about how to engage employees most effectively, but they usually miss a critical question that will determine the success of any initiative they undertake:
How safe do your employees feel?
We humans will not engage unless we feel safe. We won’t trust new situations or try new things. We’ll eye new initiatives with skepticism and doubt. We’ll hold back the best of what we have to offer until we know it’s safe to take risks. And for most people, safety comes only when a set of complex, nuanced and delicately balanced factors come together and stay consistent. Safety is not easy to achieve or maintain.
Signs of lack of safety:
How to create and maintain safety:
I often hear coaches, leaders and HR folks say something akin to, “When talking with someone who looks different than me, I want to make sure I’m being culturally aware.”
This is a flawed and limited way to think about cultural differences. In fact,
Every interaction involves some aspect of cultural difference.
When I’m with my growing-up family, we look like a pretty homogenous group of Indian-Americans.
It doesn’t take much to look beneath the surface and see complex layers of cultural difference.
Some of us live in suburbs we grew up, some of us moved to big cities. Some of us are parents, some are child-free. Some cook Indian food at home, others couldn’t make a chapati to save their lives. Some of us married Indians and some did not.
Even if you share many cultural identities and experiences with another person, there is still cultural difference between you.
The richness of cultural difference is erased when we don’t dig deep enough to find it.
In order to create workplaces in which people can contribute from their whole selves, we must get beyond the thinking that diversity only exists when we can see it or when it exists on certain dimensions like race and gender.
The next time you think you aren’t in a culturally diverse interaction, think again.
What assumptions are you making?
What are you missing?
PAUSE. REFLECT. ACT.
Every day our emotions and instincts kick in to guide our responses to a variety of situations. Sometimes our instinctive reactions serve us well, like when we start running to make an approaching train or say yes to a friend's last-minute dinner invitation.
When it comes to most professional challenges, however, knee-jerk reactions do not serve us. We need need tap into our thoughtfulness, resourcefulness and strategic thinking abilities in order to create thriving professional lives.
How do we do this? We pause. We reflect. We choose.
Before responding to a situation, take a moment to pause and allow for a thoughtful response. A pause can come in the form of a breath, taking a sip of water or shifting your physical position. Simply pushing your chair back from the conference room table during a heated meeting can create a bit of space for you to reflect.
After pausing, do a quick three-point check in. This can take just 30 seconds once you get into the habit.
Unsure about what feelings and needs are motivating you? Check out the Feelings Inventory and the Needs Inventory, courtesy of the Center for Nonviolent Communication. Familiarize yourself with these inventories so you can better name feelings and needs in the moment.
Having trouble connecting with your strengths? Write a list of 5 career experiences that you are proud of AND identify the strengths you displayed in those experiences. How do those strengths support you in any situation?
Now that you have paused and reflected, you can make a conscious choice about how to respond. Chances are you will make a more empowered, effective choice than if you had just relied on instinct and emotion.
Letting go is a creative process. When you let go of a thought, a habit, a belief or a behavior, you create space and the opportunity to allow something new to emerge. You also allow flexibility, openness and curiosity to flourish. You shake up your routines and expectations in a way that allows you to bounce back more readily when things change.
What are you willing to let go of?
The Letting Go Inventory
Below is an exercise that I ask my clients to do when life seems to be full of things that aren't working for them. Set aside 10 minutes and find a space that's conducive to writing, whether on a computer, in a journal or on a napkin. It doesn't have to be pretty.
When life is full of things that aren't serving your continued growth and success, take stock of what you can release.
After you've populated these categories, ask yourself, "Three months from now, what two things on this list would make the biggest difference?" Then commit to those two things.
Put your list away for three months and then check in with it.
How has it changed?
What's been the impact of letting go?
Here's my Letting Go Inventory from June 2021. I let go of:
We’ve learned how much work we can execute working from home. It’s time to make the office a relational space, one designed to inspire, sustain and empower professional relationships. They must be spaces for community, creativity and cohesion, not for executing tasks or keeping tabs on our colleagues.
Here’s an excellent piece by McKinsey & Company that shines a light on what is possible in this new era.
Welcome to the second article in my series on professional resilience. In this article, you'll learn how to cultivate a mindset of continuous curiosity in service of building your professional resilience.
Curiosity is defined as "a strong desire to know or learn something." It seems obvious that we should always be curious in every part of our lives, but the human truth is that we tend to slack off when we get comfortable.
Here are my tips for cultivating continuous curiosity, especially when we are comfortable:
Ask "What?" and "How?" questions.
These questions open the vista, expand the horizon. Here are some of my favorites:
Seek to understand rather than to problem-solve.
We are wired, conditioned and rewarded, particularly in the U.S. culture, to fix problems. When we use our curiosity to understand rather than problem-solve, we focus on expanding our understanding, opening up to new possibilities and allowing ourselves to be beginners. We set ourselves up to learn exactly the right information we need to move forward. This article by Elizabeth Gilbert is my FAVORITE on the topic of curiosity.
Step into not knowing. Every day.
Eleanor Roosevelt famously said, "Do one thing every day that scares you." When I first heard this quote I took it quite literally and immediately gave up. There was no way I was going to do something scary every day. Then after sitting with the quote for a while, I realized I could indeed adopt the mindset of doing scary stuff. I could look for opportunities every day to step out of my comfort zone and do something risky/scary/novel/fresh.
What might you do?
INVEST IN YOURSELF
Welcome to the first article in my series on professional resilience. In this article, I'll be sharing with you my first pathway to professional resilience: Investing in Yourself.
I want you to think about investing in yourself as an act of hard work, of incredible faith in the future, of feeding your soul and the work you are meant to do in this world. It is a full-body-mind-soul-spirit experience.
I chose the photo above to illustrate this article because of the fact that the person planting the flowers is getting their hands dirty. Real growth comes from digging up your foundation, refreshing the soil and making room for new possibilities. This means we have to let things get a little messy. We might get uncomfortable and scared along the way, but it's the only way for us to sprout new growth.
Too often we think of investing in ourselves as a transaction like attending a seminar, upgrading our professional wardrobe or having virtual coffee with a long-lost colleague. I'm not talking about transactions. I'm talking about investing in yourself as a life practice, one that will foster your professional sustainability and resilience. I'm talking about getting messy, making mistakes, creating space and discomfort in service of your next incarnation.
Think of investing in yourself on multiple levels, on an ongoing basis, throughout your professional life. Here are some ways to break it down:
As a coach, I ask a lot of questions with a very specific purpose: to get my clients to go beyond what they already know. My questions are an invitation to the unknown. Here are some of my favorites:
Sometimes clients are totally stumped by a question and sit in silence for a few moments. Other times they are able to articulate a bit of an answer before reverting back to what they already know. It goes something like this:
“If I had a magic wand, I’d have a more flexible schedule, but my boss would never go for that.”
Or, “With full confidence I would go back to school to get my nursing degree. The problem is I’m too old.”
Or, “I’m yearning to work with kids. That’s not realistic, though. I can’t give up everything and just start over.”
What theme do you notice here?
I see a theme of stopping, of cutting off possibility before it can fully be expressed, of throwing cold water on a tiny spark before it can turn into a flame.
Here’s why that is such a big deal:
Not expressing your desire = not exploring it = not planning for it = not acting on it = it never ever happens.
Try this exercise:
I love my team. Swati is the creative lead and Pascal is on logistics. They work really well together but there are communication challenges I don’t know how to fix.
Madhu: Sounds like you have a lot of confidence in Swati and Pascal. What’s going on with communication?
Client: Communication with Pascal can be really hard. He has an awkward style and that can put people off. I’m scared to address it.
Madhu: What are you afraid of?
Client: I just don’t know how to talk about it without offending him. It’s delicate.
Madhu: What about it is delicate?
Client: I don’t want to alienate Pascal. We want to retain diverse staff and I’m afraid of saying something wrong.
Madhu: What do you mean by diverse staff?
Client: (silence and a nervous smile)
For very good reasons, we are often afraid to plainly name people’s cultural identities for fear of alienating them or at worst, giving them cause for discrimination complaints.
I understand this better than most. As a former HR professional, it’s been drilled into my very soul NOT to talk about legally protected personal characteristics. In the era of inclusion and belonging, it is essential that we learn how to engage with each other plainly and lovingly as whole people.
Focusing too much on the potential legal pitfalls of exploring identity has led to a terrible phenomenon: calling people “diverse” instead of saying who they really are. If we cannot name a person’s identities, how are diversity, equity and inclusion efforts supposed to work?
3 ideas for opening up culturally full conversations:
Leaders can often struggle with making a strong emotional connection. Making an emotional connection takes self-awareness and commitment. Without a real connection between leaders and their organizations, workplaces lose their meaning and everyone suffers.
How do you know if you’re being inauthentic? (After all, no leader consciously chooses to be that way!) Let’s imagine you’re about to launch a diversity and inclusion program in your workplace. Are you authentically behind this initiative? Here some quick check in points:
Do I feel truly, fully at ease?
Feeling at ease that means you aren’t distracted, stressed, impatient or time-crunched. You are able to listen with purpose, ask open-ended questions, build others’ self-confidence and allow others to their best work.
Am I fully committed to this? If so, why?
Don’t just go through the motions. People can sense disconnected action a mile away so please be sure you are fully committed to whatever you are launching. If you’re fully committed, you’ll be so excited that you’ll want to talk about the initiative all day long. It will be even more important that sales and budget meetings or technology roll-outs. Your commitment will make it safe for everyone else to get on board and bring the initiative to life.