Inbox morale


Inbox morale

Tact does not always make its way into corporate e-mail, and what may seem like an innocent announcement from your perspective could be a morale-crushing message to the people on the other end.  Below are a collection of e-mails that executives have actually sent to their employees that may have had a different impact than was intended.

Consider this tip: take a few extra moments to craft your office e-mails, and give them a once-over (or two-over or maybe even a three-over) before sending them out to your employees.  Those extra minutes could save you days – or even weeks – of employee frustration, resentment and low morale. Technically, this is called "organizational empathy" - the ability to predict how your communications (or lack thereof) will impact others. 

Subject: Company Picnic
We will have our first company picnic next week, which we have dubbed "Morale Builder 2004."  The picnic will feature carnival rides and all-you-can-eat hot dogs and beans. A menu of steak and lobster is available for executives.

Subject: Computer Training Course
After much consideration, we have decided to cancel the training for our new computer system on the grounds that once people learn the system, they usually leave.

Subject: Recommendation Status
I sent your recommendations, under my signature, to the vice president.  I thought your suggestions were good, and I know he will pay more attention if my name, and not your name, is on it.

Subject: Computer Downtime
It has come to my attention that the e-mail system was down yesterday.  From now on, I have requested that the system manager send a group message to everyone next time the system goes down.

Subject: Customer Support
We have decided against creating a Customer Support Department on the grounds that it might encourage customers to complain more often.

Subject: New Parking Policy
We have decided to allocate parking spaces to managers.  Our current policy of "open parking" seems to benefit only those employees who come to work early.


The importance of pretzel day.


The importance of pretzel day.

First off, I have to say that there's one thing that should be understood about workplace morale: it is not primarily the result of feel-good office events or activities, but rather a host of practices, including thorough communication, effectively facilitated meetings, consistent follow-through, participatory decision-making, a manager who listens and responds, and much more.  These are what really boost workplace morale, and are largely a function of the manager's behaviors, attitudes and practices (more on all this later).

That being said, although it shouldn't be considered the only – or even primary – factor, a fun workplace environment can be an important contributing factor in maintaining high morale among employees.

Shaking up the daily routine can go a long way in creating a positive work environment and help employees remain vested and engaged.  Take, for example, Pretzel Day at Dunder-Mifflin:

This, of course, begs the question: what's your Pretzel Day?  What are the special events, activities or 'shake-ups' that occur at your workplace?  

They don't have to be as elaborate as hiring an artisan pretzel maker to set up shop in the lobby of your building, but they do need to involve at least a little forethought, which could be as simple as making sure to stop by the donut shop on your way into work each Friday morning.  Some other ideas you might consider:

  • Order pizza for a communal lunch for no special occasion.
  • Purchase and designate a small whiteboard to be used as an office wide word association game: write a word or short phrase on it daily, and let employees list their associations throughout the day as they pass by on their way to the copier or restroom. (Rule: keep it clean!)  
  • For a change of scenery, schedule your next staff meeting in an off-site location.
  • Run an ugly tie or sweater contest or have themed dress-up days.
  • During a lunch break screen an episode of a funny television show in the break room.
  • Hold contests: trivia, Christmas party theme, best advertising slogan, whatever.
  • Have a Christmas party.  Or August picnic in the park.  Or "Secret Santa" gift exchange. 
  • Hold a ping-pong tournament.
  • Bring donuts. Or veggies. Or both.  
  • Set up a smoothie bar.
  • Get a food truck to show up on-site for lunch.
  • The calendar is full of holidays such as "National Pancake Day" and "National Ice Cream for Breakfast Day."  Find a few of them to celebrate at the office throughout the year.
  • Create an indoor mini golf course: have each department design a creative hole using only materials found in their department (wastebaskets, letter trays, machine parts, etc.).  Have someone oversee the course during lunch hour for the week, and at the end you can award prizes to the department with the most creative segment and/or to the best mini golfers.
  • Movie trivia quiz: this can be done from people's workstations and returned to an appointed person to tally the scores.  Match the actor/actress with the movie, match the quote with the movie, etc.  The highest score wins a prize.  Announce the winners at a group lunch or after-work "happy hour" and serve free popcorn throughout the day leading up to the announcement.


The currency of encouragement.


The currency of encouragement.

In a recent study of 1,500 employees from across the work spectrum, when asked about the factors that kept them motivated, 87% of the participants included the words "recognition" and "reward."  To add to this, what has been shown to be most effective in motivating employees aren't rewards or compensations made by the company at-large, but rather encouragement and recognition initiated directly by the manager or supervisor.  

Catherine Meek, President of Meek & Associates, says: "In the 20 years I have been doing this and the thousands of employees I have interviewed, if I had to pick one thing that comes to me loud and clear it would be that organizations do a lousy job of recognizing people's contributions.  That is the number one thing employees say to us: 'We don't even care about the money.  If my boss would just say thank you.'"

I know that this can feel like a weighty responsibility.  "I'm already responsible for all these other things – now I have to be in charge of morale, too?!"  The short answer is: yes.  The truth is, managers are responsible for workplace morale (which is something that will be the subject of future posts).

Consider the results of a study where participants were asked to sit at a desk and circle the letter “A” whenever it appeared on a series of written pages.  For every page they completed the participant would receive money, but they would receive $0.25 less for each subsequent completed page.  For example, if they received $2 for the first page, they would receive $1.75 for the second, $1.50 for the next, and so on.  The money was placed on the table in front of them as they worked.

  • For Group 1, the experimenter would receive each page as the participant completed it, look it over, and then give a word of encouragement, such as “Good job,” or “That looks great,” and then hand them the next page. 
  • For Group 2, the experimenter received each page, didn’t look at it, and offered no expression or word of encouragement, then handed the participant their next page. 
  • For Group 3, the experimenter received the page with no encouragement, ran the page through a paper shredder, then handed the participant their next page. 

The results? 

As you might expect, Group 1 (who received a word of praise or thanks) completed more pages than any other group.  How many more?  On average, participants from this group actually submitted more pages than there was money!  In other words: they actually volunteered to do at least some of this meaningless and boring work, knowing they wouldn't be compensated!

Group 2, who received no encouragement, did far fewer pages. In fact, most of these folks quit working before the money even ran out and left it sitting, unearned, on the table.

And Group 3 – the participants who watched their work get shredded in front of them – completed the exact same number of pages as Group 2.  

The take-away is this: if you want to de-motivate your employees, you don’t even have to destroy their work in front of them – you simply have to withhold simple recognition and thanks for the work they've done.  

So how do we provide encouragement and recognition?  It's easy: 

  • Send a quick one-on-one email containing only a “thank you” for something an employee did well, for extra effort or quality can be anything!  Don't include any other information or requests in the email – keep it to words of recognition or thanks.
  • Give specific verbal praise, even for expected good work: “Joan, that presentation yesterday was great – it was really clear and the PowerPoint was simple but engaging.  Great job!” 
  • Occasionally use hand written notes and cards, as opposed to email, for words of thanks.  Studies show that the impact will be greater.  
  • Brag about your employees to others.  Word will get around. 
  • Ask them for their ideas, opinions, advice and feedback.  Tell them you value what they have to offer.  When they do offer, say, "That's great - I hadn't thought of that."  
  •  Tell an employee that she brings unique qualities and dynamics to the table - that she adds value to the team in specific ways.  People like to feel special and valuable.
  • Just say thank you.  And mean it.  

Providing encouragement and recognition doesn't have to be complicated or time/resource intensive.  It does have to be intentional. 


The importance of one-on-one meetings.


The importance of one-on-one meetings.

One-on-one meetings can be an incredibly effective way to help build rapport with your employees and accomplish most of the "Top 15 Management Skills" (see article in "tips").  In fact, when I go back and check in with the agencies I've worked with in the past, I so often find that those agencies that have experienced positive culture change attribute a large part of their success to the fact that every employee is regularly meeting with his/her direct supervisor.  This is much more effective than relying on an "open door policy," which tends to be reactive instead of proactive and emphasizes the employee needing to pursue you instead of you pursuing the employee.  Believe me - these differences make a big difference, in terms of the employee feeling valued and respected.   

Regularly scheduled (let me say it again: regularly scheduled) one-on-one meetings are an important way to:

  • Offer caring and support.  Though you shouldn't pry into employees’ personal lives, a one-on-one meeting gives them an opportunity to tell you anything that might shed light on their workplace performance.  
  • Provide accountability.  This is a good way to follow up on action plans, set goals and monitor performance.
  • Give employees a voice.   Employees can ask questions, offer suggestions and give feedback and concerns during one-on-one meetings.  These meetings will open the door for more introverted individuals who don’t take advantage of your “open door" policy.  Some people will wait until things are at a crisis point before they knock on your door...and some won’t knock at all.  An "open door" policy is not proactive.  Regular meetings are.
  •  Train, mentor and orient.   These meetings can provide a consistent time for new and longer term employees to continue their training and orientation.
  •  Thanks, recognition and praise.   These meetings can help you avoid the “Honey, I told you I loved you when I married you – I’ll let you know if I change my mind” syndrome by providing consistent encouragement and motivation to employees.
  • Establish your working relationship.   These regular conversations will cement supervisory relationships and support clear lines of reporting/accountability.
  • Give you important information.   This is a wonderful way for managers to gain insights into the health and functioning of the organization (and serves as a a more helpful alternative to "water-cooler talk" that isn't necessarily productive or results in positive action).
  • Allow you to give advice.   You can provide coaching opportunities for employees who have complaints about other employees.  



Just as important as knowing why one-on-one meetings are important is knowing how to conduct them.  Here are a few logistical tips to help you out:

  • If you have 8 or fewer employees, it's generally best to have monthly meetings lasting between 20-30 minutes.  If you have more than 8 people you need to deal directly with, aim for every other month.
  • Meetings should take place in a quiet, comfortable place.  If there isn't a spot on-site, consider scouting out a nearby coffee shop or similar location.
  • Meetings should only be cancelled because of unavoidable circumstances.  Strive to have the meeting even if the employee asks to cancel because s/he has nothing to talk about.  Once the two of you are seated, it's often surprising what comes up.
  • Document (in the employee's informal file) anything of note that is discussed so you can refer to it in subsequent meetings if needed–action plans, changes of schedule, employee requests or needs, results of brainstorming, etc.
  • If any to-do's come up for you as the supervisor, be sure to make note of these as well and follow up with your employee in a timely manner.  If, at the next meeting, you haven't accomplished our action items, it's helpful to acknowledge this and set a new "by-when" date.


How to be a MACRO-manager.


How to be a MACRO-manager.

It's probably safe to say we've either worked with or for a micro-manager in our careers.  If not, maybe it's possible we actually are the micro-manager.  This style of management can cause confusion and frustration at the work place and within the work group.  But there is a different style of management that can better guide and encourage people to successfully and efficiently perform their jobs: MACRO-managing.  So this week I am sharing with you a few tips--the 10 Commandments--of macro management.  

But before you read them, take a few moment to familiarize yourself with the terms below:

Sponsor (n.) = the person in charge     
Agent = the person who reports to the Sponsor
Group = the people who report to the Agent
S.P.A. = Single Point Accountability; the "go-to” person for a particular project, area, group, etc.
Sponsor (v.) = establishing/supporting an agent’s position so that they can successfully supervise, promote change, etc.


The 10 Commandments of Macro-Managing

1.  Sponsor (v.) your agents by communicating to the group your support and expectations.

2.  Supervise your agents without hovering.  Make it your practice to communicate any concerns or suggestions and to provide ongoing training with agents during regularly established meeting times.

3.  Practice S.P.A!   In general, communicate concerns, ideas, suggestions and expectations regarding the group only to your agents.  Think of your agents as the “doorway” to the group – the way in which to access them.

4.  Engage in M.B.W.A. (Management By Walking Around).  Observe, ask questions and offer affirmation and praise.  Save correction for private one-on-one conversations.

5.  Unless disaster is about to occur, don’t jump in and “save the day.”  Wait on it.  Instead of fixing the situation or rescuing your agent from failure, discuss the issues later.  Respond through debriefing after the fact instead of reacting in the moment.  Experience and failure are the best ways for a person to learn: allow them this opportunity.

6.   When approached by group members with questions, concerns or requests, unless the topic is within your area of S.P.A., refer them back to their direct supervisor (your agent).  

7.  When approached by group members with concerns regarding their direct supervisor, ask “Have you gone to that person?”  If the answer is yes, ask “And what did s/he say?”  Listen, but don’t make commitments or take a position.  Express empathy but not agreement.  Support your agent verbally.  Meet with your agent to troubleshoot.

8.  When approached by others from outside the particular sponsor/agent/group system with special requests, questions or concerns, when possible refer them to your agent (the person with S.P.A.).  Treat agents as the experts within their area of S.P.A.

9.  Never correct agents in front of the group, nor speak negatively about agents in front of the group.

10.  Don’t make decisions within your agents’ areas of S.P.A. without prior discussion with them.


Why carrots don't motivate teams...and what actually does.

Why carrots don't motivate teams...and what actually does.

“Great!” I said, scoring me a quizzical look.  “The whole ‘carrots and sticks’ thing is overrated,” I explained.  “In fact, company programs are the least effective ways to motivate your team. The real secret is this: employees want to be noticed and appreciated far more than they want perks or monetary rewards.”

A wary look washed across her face, the same one we see — initially, anyway — when we train leaders on how to increase morale.  It might sound simplistic or even silly, but it’s based on hard-tact fact. Truly!

In his TED Talk, Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth about What Motivates Us, taps into scientific research that demonstrates the importance of using intrinsic rather than extrinsic rewards. He shares several studies and concludes:

"The secret to high performance isn't rewards and punishments, but that unseen intrinsic drive – the drive to do things for their own sake. It confirms what we know in our hearts….  If we get past this lazy, dangerous, ideology of carrots and sticks, we can strengthen our businesses, we can solve a lot of...problems, and maybe, maybe, maybe we can change the world."

For you as a manager, the takeaway is this: noticing, encouraging and affirming your employees is mostly in your hands, not your organization’s. In other words, you can make a difference! 

The 3 ways families (and organizations) can change their inner culture.

The 3 ways families (and organizations) can change their inner culture.

Before I began working with organizations 16 years ago, I spent 12 years working with families, helping them develop healthier "home cultures."  When I began to transition into the work of organizational development, I noticed something really interesting: families and organizations tend to function in much the same way.

Any time a group of people spend enough time together on a regular basis, certain patterns and behaviors will start to form and, just like a family, a certain culture will begin to evolve.  

Everything we do at NCI stems from the understanding that, like it or not, organizations tend to function a lot like families.  And, just like families, if I want to help an organization improve its culture, I need to focus on three key areas:  

1. Great Parenting Skills
Organizational Equivalent: Great Management Skills
When I was working with families it was not uncommon for parents to approach me with some version of, "We need you to come in and fix our kids."   In all my years of working with families, I never solved problems by holding training seminars for the kids.  Do you know who I worked with to develop solutions?  That's right: the parents.   If you want to help an organization improve its culture, the first thing you need to focus on is providing a specific set of management skills to those in charge.  A lot of organizations miss this, asking me to "Come in and fix the employees."   While I totally agree that often times the employees do need some training, this usually isn't the biggest bang for the buck and doesn't lead to the long-term, sustainable change the organization is looking for.  Developing a skilled management team will.
2. A Cohesive Parental Relationship
Organizational Equivalent: A Cohesive Leadership Team
Management teams must be cohesive in both of the ways that parenting teams need to be cohesive.  First, they need to appear to get along in front of the children.  Meaning this: when your management team is sniping at one another publicly, bad-mouthing each other around employees or engaging in political infighting or even outright open conflict, the entire organization suffers in terms of morale, trust, respect and employee buy-in.  Just like in a family, when parents fight in front of kids, the children become anxious, angry and uncooperative.  Second, managers need to be on the same page with one another and enforcing the same policies in roughly the same way.  This requires management coordination and cooperation, something that doesn't happen automatically for a lot of management teams, but requires a consistent and coordinated effort by everyone involved.
3. Healthy House Rules
Organizational Equivalent: Healthy Policies & Practices
For most families, the actual "policies and procedures" aren't written down – they tend to just play out in everyone's day-to-day life.  This is also true of most organizations.  What both families and organizations tend to inadvertantly do is reward bad behaviors and punish good behaviors.   I worked with an organiation recently in which an employee (who was a line worker in a utility) spoke up in a safety meeting and said, "Yesterday I made this error, but caught it in time.  I just want to remind everyone here to be careful about this – it could lead to an injury."   Two days later he was called into HR and written up for making the error.  Do you think he's ever going to admit an error again, let alone in a group safety meeting?  Not a chance.  Good behavior was punished.  In another group, employees have learned that they can go above the head of their direct manager and get what they want from their manager's boss.  In this case, bad behavior is being rewarded.  

I can pretty much guarantee these "rewards" and "punishments" weren't the intent of anyone on the management team, but such courses of action simply become part of the unspoken "policies and procedures" – or culture – of the company, and are often carried out without realizing the impact it is having.  


Effecting change is not usually easy, whether you're a parent or a manager (or happen to be both).  But being aware of your company or organization's culture – or bringing in someone who has fresh eyes with which to see it – is the first step to bringing about effective and long-lasting change, and building a healthier and happier work family.

1,456 More Weeks


1,456 More Weeks

I was having a low morning the other day in Seattle. It was 6:15, gray and raining, and I was sitting in a coffee shop not so much looking forward to my workday. 

For some reason I was thinking about how much faster time seems to go the older I get. I was contemplating that I was 50 years old, and the I had only 20 years until I will be 70. And then it hit me. Wait. I'm 52. WTF! I just had my 50th birthday bash, like, last weekend, right? But no - it was two years ago. Correction: I only have 18 more years until I'm 70. I just lost two years. And then THIS hit me. I'm going to be dead soon. All this is going to be over in a few years.

So I decided to play a little game, and I've been playing it at least a little bit every day since then.

I pretend that I just found out that I have one week left to live. But here are the rules of the game:

1. I can't tell anyone.

2. I can't quit my normal life and go to cool bucket-list stuff.

3. I have to basically carry on my regular life, just as it is, adding nothing unusual. 

Things changed really quickly that morning. I looked out my window and saw how beautiful the rain was and thought "Whoa, this might be the last time I get to walk in the rain." I tasted my latte and thought "Dude, I might get, what, maybe 7 or 8 more of these in my life time. I love this one!" I thought about the client I was seeing that day and thought "This is my last chance to really care about this person and help them grow." Then I thought about my wife and my kids and my friends and my house and my life and realized (again) how short life is and how lucky I am and how important it is that we really bask in the moments. 

Because, you know what? I MIGHT have one week left to live, right? Who knows? If you take into account a life span of 80 years, there are only 1,456 weeks left ahead for me, any one of which could be my last. Why couldn't it be this one?

We're sitting on a planet spinning around in the middle of absolutely nowhere, and our time here is SO brief. The least we can do for ourselves, for others and for the world is find the beauty and the richness and the pleasure in the dailyness of life. 


On open doors and approachability (and why one doesn't always lead to the other).


On open doors and approachability (and why one doesn't always lead to the other).

A couple months ago I was visiting a client and borrowing an office.  I had a lot of work to do so I shut the door and hunkered down to get things done.  After only a few minutes, a member of the work group I was visiting opened my door, walked in and informed me that “Closed doors are not allowed here.” 

I was like, “Um…what?”

“No,” he reiterated. “It’s against the rules.  We abide by a strict open-door policy for managers.” 

“How do you ever get anything done?!” I asked.


What is an Open Door Policy?

So what the heck is an “Open Door Policy?"  Does it mean that your boss’s door is literally always open and that you're always welcome to interrupt whatever she's doing at any time?  Or does it mean that your leader is approachable and accessible and that you know you can come to him with almost any matter should you need to?

I hope it’s the latter.



The creation of an Open Door Policy was originally about leadership.  Specifically, it was intended to address bad leadership.   It was to prevent managers from being inaccessible to their team members and to help them be more approachable.  It was to create a safe environment in which employees could voice their opinions, concerns and, yes, even complaints.

Somewhere along the way this got twisted.

At some point, some HR individual or a misguided boss said, “To ensure managers are approachable, let’s forbid them from physically closing their doors!”  Then perhaps another genius decided to take it a step further: “Let’s just get rid of the doors!"  Or better yet, "Let’s put everyone in cubicles."  You can see where this is going.

If you have managers in your organization that are seen as unapproachable, you need to provide them with training and coaching…not require them to constantly keep their door open. 

People should know that a closed door simply means “Work in Progress.”  If they have an emergency, they can knock on the door and interrupt.  Lower priorities can be taken elsewhere or wait until a more appropriate time.  It's about setting expectations.  I communicate to my team that my door will be open when I am available.  Leaders need to get things done, too, and so sometimes my door will be closed in order to limit distractions.  And, yes, when I'm done with what I'm doing I will re-open my door! 

 An open door policy is not so much about an open door as it is about open leaders, and being approachable as a leader is about much, much more than leaving your door open.  It involves:

  • Being non-defensive when receiving feedback or suggestions.  If I get up the guts to you give you feedback about something and you punish me by being defensive, I certainly won’t do that again.  You’ve become “unapproachable.”
  • Actually asking for feedback, input, suggestions and ideas.  Because of the power differential that usually exists between employees and their leaders, most people need to be invited to share their thoughts and opinions with their boss.  If you never ask or invite them to, you are communicating that you’re not interested in what they have to say.  You’ve become “unapproachable.”
  • Reigning in your anxiety so you’re not spraying it out on everyone around you.  If you’re running around like a chicken with its head cut off, constantly answering the “How are you” question with “I’m so busy!”...anyone with half a heart will learn to steer clear.  You’ve become “unapproachable.”
  • Not playing “whack-a-mole.”  If you don’t truly listen to your employees’ ideas and concerns, but instead immediately respond with, “That won’t work” or “I disagree” or “We can’t do that”...people will stop bringing their creativity to you.  You’ve become “unapproachable.”


Has your workplace replaced true approachability with an “Open Door" Policy?  If so, how’s that working out?  


A Simple Survey to Find Out How You're REALLY Doing.


A Simple Survey to Find Out How You're REALLY Doing.

Create this simple 15 item survey (plus two "narrative questions" at the end), distribute it to your employees, and find out where you're strong and where you might need some attention in terms of these research-based "big bang for the buck" management skills.  Hint:  Ask a peer or someone else in your organization to receive and score the completed surveys, so that your employees don't have to worry about confidentiality.   

NOTE - You'll get an awful lot of management points when you: 

  1. show your employees that you value and seek their opinion on how you're doing, and
  2. receive that information graciously and non-defensively, and
  3. make efforts to improve based on that information.  

In my experience, probably only 10% of managers ever truly do these three things.  Be one of the good ones!

Manager/Employee Survey
Please rate each item from 1 (never) to 5 (always) 

My supervisor’s name: 

A.   Recognition and praise
My supervisor is skilled at giving recognition and praise.  S/he makes it clear that I am appreciated.  

B.   Listening
This person listens well.  S/he doesn’t seem distracted, doesn’t interrupt, and doesn’t rigidly stick to her/his own agenda.  I feel heard when I talk to her/him.  

C.   Accountability
When this person is unhappy with someone’s work, he/she tells them as soon as possible, privately.   S/he holds people accountable for poor behaviors/decisions/work quality. 

D.  Communication
This person communicates the appropriate information to the appropriate people.   Information is distributed to all appropriate people.   

E.  Availability
I know when this person is going to be in and when s/he is going to be out.   S/he is generally available for questions, comments, information, concerns, etc.  

F.  Problem solving
This person deals with issues and concerns as needed.   Problems are addressed, not ignored, and solutions are sought.  This person doesn’t act too slowly or too quickly. 

G.  Confidentiality
This person respects people’s privacy and honors confidentiality.

H.  Truthfulness
This person is trustworthy.  I believe what s/he tells me.  

I.  Follow through
This person does what s/he says s/he is going to do.  When s/he takes on a task, I know it will be accomplished.   S/he gets back to us as promised.  

J.  Respect
This person consistently treats employees with respect.

K.  Caring
I believe this person cares about me as a person.

L.   Decision-making
My manager often asks for the opinions of employees before making decisions that impact us.

M.   Meetings
My manager leads staff meetings that are effective and enjoyable. 

N.   General – relationship
I feel that this person and I have a good working relationship. 

O.  General – effectiveness
I feel that this person is effective in maintaining a healthy, functional, and effective department.  


Narrative Questions:

P.  What I appreciate about this person: 

Q.  What I would like more of or less of from this person:


Sure, you've got skills.   But do you have SKILLS? (Part 2)


Sure, you've got skills. But do you have SKILLS? (Part 2)

In our last post we talked about the different types of skill sets we have.  We mentioned that job-specific skills aren't usually what cause problems within the workplace, but rather what are called adaptive skills – the emotional and social competencies we acquired in childhood and adolescence that we bring with us into adulthood.  These tend to be the foundational skills from which we function, and they include (but aren't limited to):  

  • How you relate to others and make people feel
  • How you understand and express yourself
  • How you react and respond
  • How open you are to receive 
  • How you deal with anxiety
  • How well you listen and communicate
  • How you handle change

Studies show that it's these types of skills that tend to make or break our success in the workplace.  

People sometimes feel discouraged when I mention that our adaptive skills come with us from childhood.  But here's the great thing: our adaptive skills aren't locked in!  In fact, the very definition of personal growth is "the ability to improve our adaptive skills."  

So then, how do we set about improving our adaptive skills?

First of all, let's be clear about how we don't improve our adaptive skills: it doesn't happen by gritting our teeth, squeezing our eyes shut and thinking really hard to ourselves, "I have to feel respect for her...I have to feel respect for her..." only to realize that, nope, it didn't work: we still hate her guts. Intestinal fortitude doesn't result in an improvement in our adaptive skills.

The trick to improving our adaptive skills starts with the realization that how we feel inside doesn't actually impact anyone other than ourselves.  What does impact others, however, is the way we behave on the outside, through things such as body language, tone of voice, actions and words.  So how do we begin to change all that?  Well, first we have to:

A.  Learn what the new specific adaptive skill looks like, meaning: figure out the types of individual behaviors and actions – not feelings – the new adaptive skill requires.  

B.  Practice those behaviors a lot.  Like, a LOT a lot.

And yes, there is obviously a mental component to all of this...some self talk that will accompany your journey toward improvement. But we’ll save that for a future post.  For now, let’s just focus on the behaviors.  For example, what are the behaviors that accompany the adaptive skill of “Listening so that the other person feels heard?” How about:  

  • Focused body language
  • Not interrupting
  • Good eye contact
  • Putting aside distractions (computers, phones, etc.)
  • Asking good questions with an open and non-defensive tone
  • Paraphrasing what the other person said


Making changes to your adaptive skills generally involves going through the following 4 stages:

  1. Unconscious Incompetence.  In other words: "Ignorance is bliss."  This is that stage where you have no idea that you’re being perceived as defensive, hostile, disengaged, unresponsive or inconsiderate.   
  2. Conscious Incompetence.  This is usually the most painful stage because it's where you begin to receive feedback or notice negative results.  You then have to make the conscious decision to move past your denial and acknowledge that you have some deficits in your adaptive skill set.  (It’s the healthiest people, by the way, who are able to experience this stage, and, along with their pain, give themselves grace and patience as they rise to the challenge of improvement.)   
  3. Conscious Competence.  The hard work stage.  This is the stage of improvement where you are consciously and intentionally practicing your new behaviors in the moment, and it can be little exhausting. In the case of the above mentioned adaptive skill (listening so others feel heard), it involves consciously closing your mouth while the other person is talking, forming good questions and helpful paraphrases, making yourself use good eye contact, etc.  This stage reminds me of how it feels to learn a new song on the piano:  I have to look at every note while mentally connecting each one to a specific piano key... and if you try to talk to me while I’m playing, I either stop or I completely ignore you, because all my concentration is on the task at hand.  This is the kind of effort and energy that Conscious Competence often requires.  
  4. Unconscious Competence.  This is the exciting and rewarding part: realizing that you are actually good at the skill without having to try very hard!  I love it when I see this happen in my clients.  In my piano playing analogy, it’s when I'm finally able to play the song and talk to my wife at the same time!   The music seems to come almost naturally.   

I began working on my personal listening skills 12 years ago because, well, my listening skills sucked.  And while today they may not be absolutely perfect (I still occasionally struggle with interrupting, using too much airtime and forgetting to ask questions) the good news is that in the past six months I have received the following feedback on four different occasions:  “Mike, you are a really good listener.”   It made my day every time!   


 Sure, you've got skills.  But do you have SKILLS? (Part 1)


Sure, you've got skills. But do you have SKILLS? (Part 1)

We all have skills.  

Maybe you can solve complex mathematical equations.  
Maybe you can fix a leaky drain pipe.  
Maybe you can cut quite the rug on the dance floor.

Maybe some of these skills have even gotten you hired at some point or another.  But while these skills may be vital to your job (or your job's annual Christmas party), people generally aren't fired because of deficiencies in these highly specific skills.  When things go wrong on the job, it's generally because of problems in a person's adaptive skill set. 

Our skills, in all their variety, can pretty much be categorized into 3 different types:

These skills pertain primarily to the very specific talents and abilities your job requires: A lawyer's ability to write a brief, a nurse's ability to give an IV to a patient, a programer's ability to write code for a website or a performer's ability to play the piano.

These are skills you can take you with you to many different occupations:  General management skills, the ability to delegate, the ability to use a computer keyboard, public speaking skills, etc.

This group of skills is basically a cross-section of all the emotional and social competencies that you learned by the time you were around 15 years old and that you brought with you into adulthood.  They include:  

  • How you relate to others and make people feel
  • How you understand and express yourself 
  • How you react and respond
  • How you receive feedback (do you punish people by being defensive?)
  • How you deal with anxiety
  • How you handle change

It's these skills that studies show tend to make or break our success in the workplace.  

As I said above, most people aren't let go from a job because of a problem with their job-specific skills (such a pianist being fired because she woke up one day and forgot how to play the piano).  Most people are fired because of their adaptive skills (i.e. said pianist constantly berates the composer, freaks out when given feedback or throws fits when the music for the concert is modified at the last minute).