My Beef With Goldilocks

Recently, I was talking with a colleague about my work in coaching women to lead with grit and grace in tandem. The colleague replied, “Oh! I know exactly what you mean. I use the “Goldilocks” metaphor to describe that. You know: not too hard, not too soft. Just right.” To which I replied, “That’s exactly NOT what I mean.”

I’ve heard of the Goldilocks principle before, and it rankles me. I hate the idea that women leaders should strive for a tepid compromise between directness and sensitivity. That is too confining. It offers too little potential for impact. And it’s too wimpy an approach for the problems we face.

The most effective and impactful leaders I’ve worked with do not lead from the cautious, skinny middle. They fully inhabit the whole stylistic range. Rather than expressing a weak dilution of drive and compassion, they express both at full-throttle and in the same moment. They can kick butt with great kindness, and can lend you a hand without letting you off the hook. When leaders braid the robust strands of grit and grace within themselves, their outer impact is precise, skillful and potent.

People often ask me for examples of full-strength grit&grace leaders. I’ve profiled a few: first ladies Michelle Obama and Betty Ford; long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad; author, professor and TV host Melissa Harris-Perry; U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren. Liberian peace activist Leymah Gbowee and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau are high on my list of profiles to write.

Make no mistake, Goldilocks. You can’t hold a candle to any of them.

What about you?

Perhaps you’re lucky enough to know one of those rare leaders who has integrated a strong spine and open heart. It could be a man or woman, a public figure or private citizen.

  1. Who in your experience models that full-spectrum brand of influence?
  2. What does that leader inspire, ignite or accomplish that others don’t, can’t, or won’t?
  3. In what specific ways does her/his blend of grit and grace contribute to those kinds of results?
  4. What can you learn from his or her example that you could apply into your own way of influencing and leading others?

I’d love to hear about your role models for grit&grace leadership. So comment and let me know who they are and how they have affected you and the world around them.

Seriously, Secretary?

Last week, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright revived her memorable quote, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support each other.” She said it at a political rally in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential bid.

At one level, I agree with Secretary Albright. There’s no excuse for women who sabotage each other in organizational or community life. I think that women should take an active role in each other’s success. But I bristle at the inference that women owe Clinton (or any female candidate) our vote simply because she’s a woman. Reducing our choice to a matter of gender loyalty devalues the electoral process, disrespects women voters,  and tokenizes women candidates.

As we continue to evolve our mindsets with regard to gender and leadership, we struggle with an ongoing question: How do we keep pushing to equalize access to the halls of influence without whittling our leaders – and our decisions about them – down to their DNA?

February 13th update. In a recent NY Times article, Albright subsequently apologized for her comments.  While she reiterated the importance of women actively supporting each other, she acknowledged that an election was not the right place for her battle cry. So, “Thank you, Secretary.”

 

Can You Lead Confidently When You Don’t Know It All?

“When do you feel confident as a leader?” This is a question I often ask my female coaching clients, because so many of them struggle with self-confidence. Almost without exception, their reply is, “I feel confident when I ‘know my stuff’ inside and out.” Knowledge is a definite inner authority-booster. But when it’s your primary source of trust in your leadership abilities, you’re in a precarious position, because it means that you’re only self-assured when a) all things are knowable and b) you have the time and ability to know them all.

Good luck with that.

What happens when you’re facing things you’ve never faced before, like a natural disaster or 9/11? Or when the market crashes and you have to get twice as much work out of half as many people? Or when a technological breakthrough in your industry renders your core product obsolete overnight? Do your people then have to wait for you to get up to speed again before they have the benefit of a confident leader?

In the face of unprecedented and unknowable challenges, a leader needs to ground her own authority in more than just knowledge. Here are three other places to look:

1. Principle
One place to find your leadership footing when the path is uncertain is in principles and values. You may not know exactly how to proceed, but you can probably identify what matters. There’s power, clarity and confidence in that. Here’s an example. During the 2013 shut-down of the US Federal Government, many companies that consult to the government were forced to lay off workers for days or even weeks. But the leaders of one consulting firm were uncomfortable making their employees bear the financial penalty for Congress’ failures. So they asked themselves this question: “What values do we want to guide our response to this situation?” Their answer: people are more important than profits. Having articulated that principle, the way became clear: they forewent their own bonuses and asked all employees to take a specific day as vacation, so that the company could shut down its facilities and save a day’s worth of energy costs. Not one employee lost even a day’s pay. Connecting to what mattered most allowed this company’s leaders to stand confidently for a position that was costly to them personally and controversial among their external stakeholders.

2. Presence
A client of mine (we’ll call her Deb) was recently leading a team that was on the brink of a disastrous work deliverable. Despite the team’s best efforts, they approached their deadline woefully unprepared, plagued by in-fighting, and scared to death of tanking an important presentation. Deb had to decide whether to back out of the presentation or go forward. Both options presented significant risk. So when she decided to go forward, she realized that she had to do it with full conviction. First, she gathered her own energy into a clear and focused commitment. Then, standing in her own resolve, she pulled the team together to acknowledge their hard work, assess both the failure and success scenarios, and reassure the team that she would have their backs, regardless of the outcome. The solid certainty of her own presence created a psychological sea-change in the group. Feeling their leader so strongly at their back emboldened them in the presentation. They aced it. And Deb learned an important lesson: that presence itself could have a huge impact on the performance of her team.

3. Personhood
When you’re out of your depth, it’s easy to imagine that somewhere out there, there’s some mythical “perfect” leader for this situation… and it isn’t you. But here’s the thing. The perfect leader isn’t here; you are. So show up. Lead with what you’ve got, whether that’s the ability to lend perspective, to keep calm, to energize, to empathize, to engender trust, to problem-solve, to facilitate, to leverage the right people, to protect and advocate. When you’re out of your knowledge depth, bring everything else you’ve got – because your folks need a leader and you’re the one who’s here. And you, in all your imperfection, may turn out to be exactly what the situation called for after all.

————————————-

Knowing your stuff is a great thing, and it certainly contributes to your credibility as a leader. But when you rest your confidence solely on what you know, then it’s contingent on conditions and you’re missing out on many other sources of authority and impact.

What about you?

  1. On what internal standards or criteria do you base your own confidence as a leader?
  2. What happens to your confidence as a leader when you can’t meet those standards?
  3. What price do you pay for that loss of confidence? What’s the cost to your team and your organization?
  4. How might you leverage principle, presence or personhood in a fuller way to support your confidence as a leader?
  5. What specific steps might you take to do that?

“Aggressive:” The ‘Scarlet A’ of the Workplace

Aggressive. Abrasive.  These “A” words have become the “scarlet letter” of organizational life, the mark of blame given to so many women who display grit in the workplace. Once that indictment attaches itself to a woman’s reputation, it sticks to her like a tattoo and is about as difficult to remove. It’s stopped many a career in its tracks and muffled many a female voice.

Aren’t we over this yet? Haven’t we outgrown our grit-intolerance in women? Apparently not. A recent study published in Fortune compared the language used in performance reviews of both male and female high performers in the tech industry. The study showed that women receive much more negative stylistic feedback than their male counterparts. This is no surprise… except in the extent to which it is still true. Here was the researcher’s bottom line:

“In all, I collected 248 reviews from 180 people, 105 men and 75 women…  Negative personality criticism — watch your tone! step back! stop being so judgmental! — shows up twice in the 83 critical reviews received by men. It shows up in 71 of the 94 critical reviews received by women.”

Let’s put that into percentages: Negative feedback about personal style showed up in only 2.4% of the performance criticisms given to men, whereas it showed up in 75.5% of the criticisms given to women. This challenges the argument that implicit bias is a figment of women’s imagination. And lest we make this into a blame-fest of men, women and men provided this skewed feedback in equal measure. Our gender biases are a collective affliction.

Organizations are still preoccupied (dare I say “obsessed?”) with how women do what they do. Not only must women get stuff done, but they must look, sound and feel “just right” to us (whatever that means) while they’re doing it. And if they color outside of those invisible stylistic lines, they could spend their careers trying to pry that Scarlet A off their chest. Truly – it’s a lot of damn work.

Navigating this stylistic scrutiny is at the heart of the coaching I do with women executives. In the course of hundreds of coaching conversations, I’ve noticed a few core patterns.

1.  Stylistic bell curve.  Countless are the times a woman client has said to me, “Of course I have room to improve. But I resent being mandated to work with a coach for speaking too directly, when my male colleagues are actually swearing, pounding their fists and yelling at people in meetings. But I’ll bet you’re not working with them.”

Gaussian (bell) graphAnd, for the most part, she’s right. Most organizations view men and women very differently when it comes to style. Imagine a “stylistic bell curve” that captures a spectrum of behavior from the most assertive (“grit”) to the most affiliative (“grace”). Women consistently report that they must operate within a very narrow swath of behavioral territory right in the middle. They feel forced to maintain an elusive, razor-thin stylistic balancing point. Confident, but not arrogant. Passionate, but not strident. Attractive, but not sexy. Collaborative, but not wimpy. And if they stray from that tiny terrain, the Scarlet A of “aggressive” or “abrasive” is likely to come down on their heads. It’s a bit like leading inside an invisible fence, where the territory is small and the electric wires keep getting moved around.

On the other hand, organizations tend to afford men much greater stylistic leeway. They generally call foul on a man unless his behavior is out to the extremes. They generally don’t brand him as “abrasive” or “aggressive.” And rarely do they interpret his grit perceived as a fixed personal shortcoming. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen. I’m just saying that, at least according to the Fortune study, it happens about 3000% less often to men than to women.

2.  Bait-and-switch. Early in their careers, women, especially are often rewarded for grit traits, such as ambition, drive, critical thinking and toughness. In order to be seen as credible professionals, and later as “leadership material,” women must often  demonstrate a considerable degree of grit. They must prove that they can “hack it;” “keep up with the guys;” “show no weakness.” So women learn to hone and rely on toughness in order to succeed.

And then it happens. The Scarlet A arrives on their foreheads, and they never saw it coming. Often out of nowhere, women start receiving criticism for the very traits and behaviors for which they’d been praised in the past. My practice is full of women struggling to make sense of this wild shift in the winds of feedback and to navigate it before their career hits the rocks. To them, it feels like a real bait-and-switch of expectations, and seems to happen most predictably when women reach mid- to top-level leadership.

3.  Assertive vs. aggressive. I often hear women say, “There’s no winning. If you’re strong, you’re automatically considered aggressive.” I fully grant the heightened risk that women face of being negatively judged for their grit. At the same time, within these women’s own organizations, I see other powerful women who have NOT been branded with the Scarlet A. What’s going on there?

The powerful women executives I’ve seen who escape the Scarlet A are no pushovers. In fact, their styles may even be grit-centric. But unlike most of my clients, they also tend to have a good bit of grace online, which enables others to see them as assertive, rather than aggressive.  I’ve coached many women who were labeled as aggressive, and most of them shared a characteristic over-reliance on grit behavior, to the neglect of grace. Without the modulating effects of grace in a grit personality, the grit goes into a hyper concentrated form of itself, which I call “growl.” In each case, our coaching work focused on helping the grit-based women to reintegrate some needed aspects of grace. The result? Toughness with heart: an emergence out of growl territory into healthy, grace-infused grit style.

My observation is that when the Scarlet A befalls a leader of either gender, growl is usually present. This is not to minimize the fact that there’s still great gender disparity. Organizations will tolerate a whole lot more grit from men than they will from women. But whenever the term “aggressive” is levied, there is very often a valid invitation to cultivate a bit more grace.

4.  Burden and opportunity. The threat of the Scarlet A causes women to carry a heavy and unfair burden when it comes to style. Yet amid the burden, I do see opportunity. Just as pressure forms coal into diamonds, the stylistic pressure on women is creating a lot of transformative leaders whose example we all can follow. I see women leading the way into the kind of leadership that is needed in this world. They are the ones fighting for equality by holding both the lotus and the sword. They’re the ones calling bulls*%t while reaching across the aisle in cooperation.

And yet, is there any business or ethical sense in making women dance on the head of a stylistic pin at work? I hope that the Fortune study findings will wake all of us up to the fact that gender bias still exists and that we’re all participating in it. I hope organizations will hear this study as a call to take women out from under the stylistic microscope and hold themselves to a more equitable standard of feedback. I hope all leaders, whether male or female, will continue to challenge themselves not just to “tolerate” strong women, but also to embrace and invite the full spectrum of the power that women can bring.

 

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Do You Suffer From “Sorry-itis?”

Early one morning, Peg popped her head into her boss’ office and said, “Sorry, Bill. Do you have a minute?” In a late-morning project meeting, she said, “I’m sorry, but can I ask a question?” Riding the elevator to go out for lunch, Peg was jostled by another rider. “Sorry,” she said reflexively.  And on the last call of the day, something the other person said was garbled. To prompt the speaker to repeat himself, she said… you guessed it… “Sorry?”

Women rightly chafe against being treated as “less than” in the workplace. But we actually participate in that treatment through our own “sorry-itis” – a condition affecting mostly women, in which we apologize to others for absolutely nothing.

Like you, I respect leaders who admit to their mistakes and who own up to the consequences. But sorry-itis is a whole different thing.  In all four examples above, Peg committed no transgression. Essentially, she manufactured needless blame and stuck it to own forehead.  So the only harm done was to Peg herself. Though each of her “sorries” was a casual utterance and no big deal, together, they formed a speech pattern that communicated that Peg is a walking mistake. Every unwarranted “sorry” taught others to devalue her.

When Peg became aware of the extent and impact of her sorry-itis, she wanted to heal it. But she was afraid that she might start sounding like a jerk. So what were her alternatives in the four situations?

  • Popping her head into Bill’s office, she could merely say, “Excuse me, Bill. We don’t have an appointment right now, but do you have a few minutes to go over X?” And if Bill says, no, she can counter with “No problem. What would be a better time?”
  • She had every right to ask a question in a meeting. A more self-respectful way to do it might have been “Before we move on, I’d like to get more clarification on Y.”
  • In the elevator… Just zip it, Peg. The jostler owes the apology here, not the jostle-ee.
  • If she didn’t understand or hear something, she could have simply said “Would you say that again?”

What about you?

For the next week, keep a running log of the situations where you said “I’m sorry.”

At the end of the week, review the log.  What percentage of the time were your “sorries” the warranted acknowledgment of harm or injury?  What percentage of your “sorries” were due to sorry-itis?

When your sorries were unwarranted, what message do you think they sent to others:
– about how you regard yourself?
– about how others should regard you?

If you had one of those situations to do over again, how could you communicate in a way that was both graceful and self-respectful?

‘Uninstalling’ Subtle Sexism

The public discourse surrounding New York Times’ editor Jill Abramson’s recent firing has been fascinating to watch. Though we still don’t know exactly what happened and why, one of the prevailing theories is that Abramson was fired partly because of her “brusque” manner and “pushy” approach to confronting top management about compensation.

Abramson’s firing has reignited the conversation about gender bias in the workplace. But I’ve been surprised to see how many articles assert that we have some sort of new problem in our organizations: articles entitled, “The new war on women” and “The new forms of subtle bias”. But I don’t think that Jill Abramson shows us a new problem – simply that the quest for equality needs to continue in ever more subtle and conscious ways.

The process of eliminating sexism (or any other “ism”) at work is kind of like the process of uninstalling a software program from your computer. Even though you’ve uninstalled the main program, countless bits of code remain in the computer’s memory. So it is with organizations. Even though most workplaces have eradicated overtly sexist policies, the organizations still carry an enormous amount of biased “code” in their corporate cultures, behavioral expectations and application of corporate policy. These remnants of bias are difficult to detect if you are a member of the dominant culture that wrote the code in the first place. But they are eminently palpable to those who were not yet at the table when the code was written.

Here are a couple of examples of how sexist organizational code may have played out for Abramson:

  • Jill Abramson had the reputation of being “brusque.” Would we be criticizing a man for this same behavior – especially in an industry (journalism) which rewards driven and competitive people? Assuming that Abramson’s predecessors also exhibited significant ‘grit,’ were they chastised for being pushy, or were they excused, praised or promoted for being bulldogs?
  • Allegedly, Abramson’s superior, Arthur Sulzberger, was offended that she brought a lawyer into the room when she raised a concern that her male predecessors had been paid more than she. Two questions here. First – would you be equally offended if a man brought a lawyer in? Second, if Abramson’s bringing a lawyer into the room was unusual, then Sulzberger might have asked himself why Abramson felt that she needed this kind of protection to raise a compensation issue with senior management.

This happens at the individual level as well. Many of the male executives that I work with are perplexed by women’s ongoing claims of bias. I can see why. Few, if any, of them have overtly sexist attitudes toward women. But just because they don’t have an explicit belief that women are ‘less than’ doesn’t mean that they don’t have plenty of subtle sexist code in their behavioral DNA.

One of the most direct ways to confront the subtler remnants of bias is to ask yourself this question: “Would I (we) speak/behave/react in this way if this were a man?” If the answer is ‘no,’ then it’s time to look for the remnants of sexist code. For example:

  • Would you normally comment on a male colleague’s appearance? Would you compliment him on the attractiveness of his suit or a recent haircut? No? Then don’t comment on a woman’s appearance either. Recognize women for their work, not their wardrobe. Whether it’s Hillary’s “cankles” or Sarah Palin’s “hotness,” just don’t.
  • If you’re making deals or wielding influence at a place or time that a woman doesn’t have immediate and easy access to, then you are operating on “old code.” Sure, it’s probably easy and natural to conduct business over a cigar and 18 holes. It takes discipline to conduct the “real business” at the table where everyone actually has a seat. Do that.
  • If you’re working in a team, don’t look to the woman to be the notetaker. It’s a subservient role that she’s used to and you’re used to seeing her in. So even if she’s got “the best handwriting,” even if she’s organized, even if she offers – go against the grain. Ask a man to scribe.

I don’t agree with those who believe that Abramson’s firing signals a ‘new’ war on women or a ‘new’ form of sexism. I think it simply points to the bias that still exists in a world where more explicit forms of sexism are fading away. But just because an organization has uninstalled its more explicit sexist programming, it doesn’t mean that the remaining bytes of sexism aren’t powerfully shaping women’s daily experience and running room at work. So if we want to make organizations more productive and vibrant, we need to actively look for those lingering bits of biased code and then take action to erase it from our personal and organizational hard drives.

Melissa Harris-Perry: The Power of Authentic Emotion

I often hear women say that they can’t show emotion at work or they’ll get ‘killed.’ Historically, it has been risky – even career-ending – for women leaders to show emotion, especially in male-dominated cultures. Somehow it makes them seem less credible, less tough, less … you name it. So for survival, women try to sanitize and excise their feelings at work, boiling themselves down to facts and charts. As adaptive as that may be, do we really want our leaders (male or female) to be devoid of expression, stripped of the kind of intelligence that resides only in the emotions? If you ask me, the ‘women can’t be emotional at work’ story has got to change.

This past weekend, Melissa Harris-Perry gave us a compelling picture of why that story needs to evolve and what’s possible when it does. She is the anchor of “Melissa Harris-Perry,” a highly-acclaimed news show on MSNBC. In her final show of 2013, her panelists did a light-hearted review of some of the year’s iconic photos, suggesting humorous captions for each. One was of Mitt Romney’s family, and the panel’s banter focused on Romney’s grandson, a lone African American face in an otherwise all-white family photo. The panelists did not intend the commentary to be critical or mean-spirited. But many viewers (including the Romneys) were hurt and angered by it.

Melissa Harris-Perry’s response? The most vulnerable and true-ringing apology by a public figure that I have ever seen. (http://www.msnbc.com/melissa-harris-perry/apology-melissa-harris-perry). Unlike so many high-profile amends-makers, she did not apologize for someone’s taking offense at her words (which is actually a subtle way to blame those offended for being too sensitive). Rather, she took direct responsibility: she acknowledged that the panel’s banter was offensive. She said that she had exercised poor judgment and had failed to live up to one of her own core values: to keep children safe from media fire.

Harris-Perry fought back tears as she spoke, belying her passion and pain. She looked and sounded heart-broken about the impact of those careless comments on the Romney family and on all mixed-race families. And that’s what I admired most: that she didn’t report her anguish; she revealed it. In her undefended sorrow, she did something magnificent: she led.

 

GM’s First Female CEO: Does This Matter?

Mary Barra is making history. She’s the new CEO of General Motors and the first woman to head up a large auto manufacturer. It’s big news for sure, but it’s got me wondering: is Barra’s gender of any real consequence?

Here are a few different perspectives on that question.

Parity. From the gender equality point of view, a woman at the highest level in such a male-dominated industry is a very important step. Good news on the equity front.

Profitability. A study of Fortune 500 firms has shown a strong correlation between the number of women in the executive suite and profitability. The 25 firms with the best record of promoting women to high positions were between 18 and 69% more profitable than companies with fewer women at the helm. This bodes well for GM and its shareholders.

Barra herself. GM is doing very well these days, so Ms. Barra is taking the reins of a healthy company. This is often not the case for women execs, who are frequently given top leadership positions of organizations that are hitting the skids (which can set them up for very public failure). But Barra’s being set up to succeed, bolstered by a tailwind of positive corporate momentum and unanimous Board backing.

GM’s culture. A change in gender does not guarantee a cultural sea-change for an organization. I know plenty of grit-based women who have a very traditional, command-and-control, style of leadership. But it sounds like Barra will bring exactly the kind of blended leadership that can transform an organization’s culture for the better. According to the Dallas News, “Friends and colleagues say Barra has an unusual mix of skills. She’s fiercely intelligent yet humble and approachable. She’s collaborative but is often the person who takes charge. And she’s not afraid to make changes.” To me, this is the most exciting part of this change: not that GM’s being led by a woman, but that it’s being led by someone who brings grit and grace in equal measure to the executive suite.

I’m eager to see how this story unfolds.

How Not To Respond To Style-Related Feedback

Harvard Business Review’s September cover kind of says it all. It shows a profile of a woman and three phrases in bold letters:

“Bossy”
“Emotional”
“Too nice”

If you’re a woman in the workplace, you have probably noticed that you’re a lot more likely than your male colleagues to get stylistic criticism. Like it or not, organizations still tend to pay as much attention to how women behave as to what they accomplish.

I think stylistic feedback is the hardest kind of feedback to deal with. It’s one thing to hear that your data was wrong or that your marketing strategy was weak. But stylistic feedback is about you. Whether or not it’s justified or accurate, it’s personal. To make matters worse, people often deliver this kind of feedback quite badly. So it’s hard to hear, hard to decipher and hard to address.

Here are the five most common mistakes I see women make in dealing with stylistic feedback:

1. Denial. This is an understandable and automatic response. If someone says we’re too emotional, we’re likely to respond with, “No I’m not.” Whether or not you feel the feedback is valid, dismissing it out of hand could come back to bite you.

2. Blame. I had one client tell me, “I wouldn’t have to be so demanding if the people around me weren’t such idiots.” Even if every member of your team is woefully inadequate – as long you’re blaming others for your reactions, you’re not learning and the situation will not improve.

3. Intensification. This seems counterintuitive, but I see it happen a lot. Someone gets feedback that what she’s doing isn’t working. Her initial reaction? To do what she’s been doing, but do it harder, longer, faster, more. One client told me, “No matter how much I support my team, they still aren’t delivering. I guess I need to be even more supportive.” In other words, in times of stress we tend to draw more heavily on what we already know and are good at. But when that isn’t getting results, doing more of it usually doesn’t help.

4. Abandonment. This is the opposite response from intensification. The internal message here is, “They say I’m bossy. I guess I’ll just have to start beating around the bush and start sugar-coating everything.” Not a great strategy. You probably won’t be very good at it, and you definitely can’t sustain it long term. Most importantly, no one else is buying it.

5. Style ‘whack a mole.’ Some women I’ve worked with try to suss out each situation and behave as they think others want them to act. I’m not talking about appropriate situational adjustment here, but rather a form of play-acting where you’re trying to be whoever/whatever you think others want you to be, in the hopes that you’ll avoid getting slammed. Big mistake. First of all, it’s exhausting. And ultimately it will backfire. You’ll come across as inauthentic, inconsistent or, worse, manipulative.

However unfair or unskillful stylistic feedback may be, it is always an opportunity to learn something. That’s where I always suggest that people start – looking for the learning nugget. Maybe you will discover something about yourself. Or maybe it can help you understand something new about the feedback-giver. Maybe it will give you valuable insight into the organization’s culture.

About yourself. The leaders I’ve worked with who were most successful at dealing with stylistic feedback have been able to find the grain of truth in it. One of my clients got feedback that she was too judgmental, to which she initially responded with blame. But when I asked her how her relationships at home were going, she reported that her daughter was intimidated by her and avoided contact. Despite the fact that my client still didn’t respect the views of the person who gave her feedback, she was able to see the thread of truth: that her forceful style was getting in the way of important relationships both at home and at work. From that point on, she invested fully in her own development and made stunning stylistic shifts. She developed a strong compassionate side, without ever losing her signature feistiness.

About the feedback giver. If you can’t find any evidence that the stylistic feedback you’ve received is accurate or valid, it still gives you insight into the values and preferences of the feedback-giver. While s/he may be saying that you’re objectively ‘too emotional,’ the meaning may actually be that your style is overpowering to him or her. You may learn from this feedback that dialing down your own intensity will help you be more effective with that person.

About the organization and its culture. I’ve had a lot of clients who have moved to new organizations and been hit with stylistic feedback that they’ve never encountered before. Often, that’s because what was expected or acceptable in a previous environment is devalued in another. For example, I’ve coached many ex-military people who have transitioned to the civilian sector. Once lauded for their directness and clarity, they may be harshly criticized in their new environment for being overbearing. While this feedback may be confusing, it can provide crucial insights into the values of the new organization and the adjustments that you may have to make to be successful there.

If you’re a woman in the workplace, you are much more likely to receive feedback on your style than your male colleagues are. So you might as well plan for it. If it comes your way, try to make sure that you don’t fall for any of the classic unhelpful responses. Instead, use style-related feedback as an opportunity to learn something – about yourself, the person giving you feedback, or your organization.

 

Don’t Just Do Something; Sit There!

I did a really good thing last week: I went on a 24-hour personal retreat. From noon on Monday to noon on Tuesday, I set down all my ‘shoulds’ and to-do lists and went with a friend to a log cabin in a wilderness preserve about 2 hours from DC. No agenda – just space, time, wooded trails, a journal and some wholesome food.

As we began our retreat, each of us articulated an intention for our time there. Mine was to feel less scattered, to be restored to a sense of inner consolidation and wholeness. It didn’t take long for me to start feeling better. Within minutes of settling on that porch overlooking the Shenandoah Valley, serenaded by the whisper of dry leaves falling, the sharp inner edges smoothed out. I felt spiritually reconnected. I felt relieved to drop down into a mode where I was not making anything happen.

These 24 hours got me thinking about how much my life supports accomplishment and how little it supports personal renewal. Whether it’s in my business, my home, or in my community, the world around me is always calling for me to do more. And I want to answer that call. So I spend most of my time in what I call my ‘executive function,’ the grit side of myself that plans, aspires, organizes, and gets stuff done.

By contrast, there is very little around me that encourages me to slow down, to inhabit a more quiet, receptive mode. I don’t get messages from my environment saying, “Get less involved!” “Be content with what you have!” or “Hey – winter’s coming: time to slow down.” The drive to take things down a notch comes only from within myself – not because “I’m worth it,” but because I need it in order to be at my happiest and best. None of my most creative moments occur when I’m staring at a computer screen – they occur in the shower or on walks. Busyness does not cultivate kindness in me – relaxation does. The harder I’m driving, the less open I am to inspiration or delight.

I don’t know about you, but the world doesn’t tend to hand me renewal time on a silver platter. I’m going to have to keep carving it out for myself.

I am a fan of big breaks, like spiritual, contemplative or creative retreats or even spa get-aways. These can be immensely beneficial – kind of a whole-being reset. But these big breaks can also be beyond reach for many of us. No worries. Even the smallest reconnection with our ‘grace’ sides can have profound effects. So we have to reclaim and build renewal time into our daily lives, structuring in no-cost, low investment micro-retreats. Here are some ideas:

  • Breathing breaks. Unless the building’s on fire or your kid needs to go to the emergency room, most of us can take 60 seconds out to simply pay full attention to our breath. The breath is an express train into the present moment, which is actually the only place where stress does NOT live. Most stress is a fabrication of our minds, which are either fretting about the past or worrying about the future. For one minute a couple of times a day, be. here. now.
  • Mealtime meditations. When was the last time you sat down to a meal and brought your full attention to the act of eating? When was the last time you really tasted your lunch? Noticed the color, shape and textures of what you consumed? Chewed instead of shoveled? Even eating at your desk can be transformed into an opportunity to cultivate receptivity and presence.
  • Gratitudes. I don’t know about you, but once I get into task mode, I can tend to feel put-upon – even if I’ve put everything upon myself! It can be a game changer to take a second to register one thing that you’re grateful for, one way in which you feel blessed. Research has proven that a gratitude practice yields significant psychological and physiological benefits, and it’s easy to do. You can weave it seamlessly into your day – maybe doing it every time you’re standing at the elevator or walking between meetings. Maybe you write down one gratitude as the first note you take in every meeting. I have two ‘gratitude buddies’ – we try to email each other each day with five things we’re grateful for.
  • Nature time-outs. I have a client who sets a chime to ring on her computer two or three times per day. It reminds her to go outside and connect with the natural world for a minute or two. Nature returns her to a larger sense of perspective and a more gracious orientation to time. Nature’s often closer at hand than you think. Step out of your office and walk around the block. At your daughter’s soccer game, take your attention off of how she’s doing for a few seconds and just feel the sun on your face. At a stoplight, turn off the radio and open the window.
  • Music retreats. Music can change your state almost instantly. Put on a quiet piece of music in your office and just listen. Or shut your door and dance around to a favorite boogie tune.

What about you?

What happens to you when your life becomes all doing (grit) and no being (grace)? How does it affect your health, outlook and energy? How does it affect the quality of your relationships? How does it affect your effectiveness at work and at home?

Have you ever established grace-supporting structures or routines in your life? If so, what were they, and what impact did they have on you?

What impact did they have on those around you?

What enabled you to sustain these structures? What got in the way?

Given the reality of your life these days, what are two things you could do on a regular basis to give your grit-ful ‘executive function’ a break?