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employee wellbeing discussion
Why Employee Well-being is Vital to Work Performance
Why Employee Well-being is Vital to Work Performance 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

There’s a lot of talk about employee well-being right now. 

Apparently, suffering through a global pandemic is enough to finally get us thinking about our well-being more seriously. The consequences of a lack of well-being have been laid bare over the last year.  

But employee well-being isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s been lurking in the shadows, affecting work performance for as long as the notion of “work” has existed. 

Today, my goal is to caution you against dismissing the emphasis on employee well-being as only being related to the pandemic. Instead, we must recognize it as an opportunity to re-tool management to improve both productivity and engagement moving forward. 

What is Well-being? 

Twelve years ago, I was hired to lead the corporate human resources team for a regional bank. To their credit, they’d been investing in employee well-being programs for years before I arrived. They even had a full-time wellness coordinator on staff (uncommon then) who was on my team.

I’ll be honest that prior to taking that job, I’d never really understood wellness programs. The most I’d brushed up against wellness in past organizations was through periodic health fairs at the office that seemed out of place to me.

This was something different. They viewed wellness as an employee benefit, a way to help the employee get or stay healthy. And the employees seemed to embrace it. I was intrigued. 

Workplace wellness programs at the time included things like steps challenges, weight-loss competitions, and programs to help you quit smoking. They often incorporated an outsourced Employee Assistance Program (EAP) hotline, but it seemed few ever used it. 

Employee well-being was almost entirely focused on physical health. And physical health is an important issue. But as we’re coming to understand now, well-being is so much broader than that. 

Well-being at Its Core

Well-being at its most fundamental level is literal. It’s about “being well.” The work of well-being is taking intentional steps to feel better (or less unwell) in all areas of our lives.  

There are a lot of different definitions and models of well-being out there. I like the ones used by The Center for Spirituality and Healing and WELCOA personally, but what’s more important than a specific definition is that you recognize what well-being feels like and how it affects your life.

What helped me finally grasp the importance of well-being at work was to focus on my own experiences when I was either feeling really well or really unwell in my life and how that affected my ability to perform my job. 

The most obvious experience we’ve all shared of unwellness is being sick. When we are suffering from a cold, COVID, or any other illness, our ability to perform at our best in any area of our life is diminished. 

Well-being and Performance

When we are ill, our body rallies its energy to power our immune response, which directs it away from other things. I know that I can’t think or concentrate with any effectiveness when I’m sick. At best, it takes me twice or three times as long to get things done. 

When we are physically diminished for any reason, our work suffers. Hungover, tired, hungry, or any number of other issues can cause us not to be at our best. 

A lack of physical well-being is probably the easiest to see and notice, which I think is why most wellness programs have focused there in the past. But, being unwell can have many causes. 

As we’ve heard a lot recently, mental health is a significant contributor to well-being. This can manifest in a bunch of ways, from anxiety to depression. Mental health and mental illness are just as serious and often more harmful than issues with physical health. 

I’ve written about my own experiences with burnout and how it disrupted my ability to be at my best in any part of my life—let alone work. When we don’t care for our mental health, it can have dire impacts on work and every aspect of our life. 

Hopefully, you recognize your own experience in some of this and relate to the stark difference between how you show up in life and work when you are well versus unwell.  

Why Well-being Matters

Please don’t get the wrong idea; well-being isn’t just about avoiding pain or suffering. It’s about recognizing that we all have core human needs as human beings that need to be met for us to be happy, content, and able to be the best version of ourselves. 

Being “well” means your core needs are met in a way that allows you to make choices about how to invest your time, energy, and talent.

Being “well” means you’re operating as a whole person with your full potential at your disposal. 

“Well” is an aspiration. And, it’s one that I believe all humans share. When our well-being is in a good place, it feels great. 

Well-being has come to the forefront now because the past year has introduced multiple threats to our well-being that almost felt like a coordinated attack. 

Illness led the news, but our safety and financial security also came under attack simultaneously. Relationships were strained, and unhealthy habits revealed themselves as a temporary solution to our anxiety. 

Life piled on the well-being challenges one after the other as if it were a contest to see how much we could handle before we break. Some of us broke. Many are on the verge of breaking.

This is where far too many people find themselves today.  

As a manager or leader, this should be alarming to you. Because as we know from our own experiences when we aren’t well, we can’t do our best work. 

While this has always been true, the consequences of not supporting our employees’ well-being are starker and more catastrophic than ever before. 

If you want a high-performing team who will stay with you through good and bad times, supporting well-being needs to move to the top of your priority list and stay there. 

How to Support Employee Well-being

While I’m not going to offer you a comprehensive guide here for how to manage and lead for well-being, what I can do is share with you a few foundational steps you can take to get started in the right direction.

1. Give yourself permission to care. 

Well-meaning HR departments for years have told managers to maintain their distance from employees. We were advised not to get too close to people because you need to stay objective when managing people.  

And, while this advice is meant to ensure fairness and avoid favoritism, the unintended consequence is that managers have kept people at arms-length, believing that they really can’t engage with the employee in any way beyond what is “work-related.” 

As I outlined earlier, much of what affects our well-being and ability to perform our best at work happens in the part of our lives when we aren’t working. So, as a manager who wants to help people be at their best at work, you have to care about and be interested in your employees far beyond work.

This doesn’t mean you need to become best friends with each of your employees. But, you should give yourself permission to care about them and their lives outside of work.

When you start to care for your people beyond just their work output, you’ll start asking different questions and having different conversations. Showing your people that you care is a significant first step towards improving their well-being. 

Just knowing someone cares about you is incredibly powerful. You can give that gift to every person you manage.

2. Abandon the “work-life balance” myth. 

One thing that has traditionally got in the way of organizations meaningfully addressing employee well-being is the myth of work-life balance. 

The whole notion of balance assumes you have two separate things to put on opposite sides of a scale and adjust until the scale balances. The issue here: two separate things. 

Work isn’t something separate from life, it’s part of it. The concept of work-life balance only became a thing when employees started to realize how much work sucked for them and how much of a negative impact it was having on their lives. 

So, organizations started talking about “balancing” work and life as a solution to this issue. Rather than fix the root cause (work sucks and it’s killing us, sometimes literally), we created programs to help people think about the non-sucky parts of their life—that stuff that we don’t call “work.” 

Work is part of life. And life comes to work with people every day. There is no separation to balance. There is only a human being in the middle of it who has needs and aspirations. When we refuse the myth of work-life balance, we can finally start addressing the root issues holding people back.

3. Learn compassion.  

At the beginning of the year, I declared that the number one management imperative of 2021 was compassion. Compassion isn’t a concept commonly discussed in management or leadership training, but it may be the vital missing piece to truly embracing our role in supporting employee well-being. 

At the heart of compassion is an awareness of the suffering of others and a desire to help remove or address that suffering. It’s a simple idea with profoundly powerful implications when put into practice.  

Hopefully, we’ve all experienced compassion from others at some point in our lives. If you have, you remember that experience of someone recognizing that you were suffering or struggling and offering to help you get through it. 

For me, it was the compassion of my wife and another close friend last summer who both recognized I was struggling and offered me the support I needed to heal from my burnout. 

Compassion starts with permitting yourself to care (see #1 above) and seeing the employee beyond just what happens “at work” (see #2 above). From there, it’s going to be about cultivating skills for recognizing people’s needs and challenges with a commitment to address them.  

To dive deeper into the skill of compassion, I recommend reading this resource: How to Foster Compassion at Work Through Compassionate Leadership

Well-being is the Future of Work

This has been a chaotic and often painful chapter in the evolution of work. But we’re standing at the edge of a brand new chapter.

The silver lining in this pandemic is that it shattered the status quo of “how work should be done” to reveal something that’s always been true: 

It’s about the people. 

Embracing the work of well-being is ultimately a fundamental re-thinking of how we design and manage work. Employee well-being starts with designing based on what’s best for the humans who do the work—not the organization. 

Those who recognize and embrace this shift now will lead the way forward and show what’s truly possible. And I believe they will be in a position to thrive wildly in the future. 



Related Reading:

Wellness 2.0

Why Wellness Programs Matter

How (and Why) to Check in With Your Employees Now More Than Ever

Sending My Kids Back to School Broke Me

management through the cultivation mindset
Management Needs an Upgrade: The Cultivation Mindset
Management Needs an Upgrade: The Cultivation Mindset 1080 794 Jason Lauritsen

The past year forced a lot of changes in the way work happens. When, where, and how we work was disrupted in a way that we’ve never seen before. 

Organizations have adapted in some pretty compelling ways. 

Safety was made a top priority through changes to the physical workspace along with new protocols, practices, and equipment. This was in response to a needed wake-up call because unless it was core to your business pre-COVID, safety (both physical and psychological) was taken for granted in too many workplaces despite being one of our most fundamental needs as humans. 

Technology capabilities that were once thought impossible to deploy were rolled out in days to enable remote working. An era of unprecedented work flexibility was born overnight. And this genie is not going back in the bottle. 

New communication tools and processes were put in place to help employees navigate the immense waves of uncertainty they were facing. This has resulted in more frequent and meaningful communication than ever before. 

And, perhaps most encouragingly, an investment in well-being programs has been deployed to help the employee navigate and survive these challenging times. Employee well-being has too long been overlooked and ignored. It took a global pandemic to finally wake us up to the reality that work performance starts with well-being.  

From my seat, these all look like an acceleration towards a better future of work. And my hope is that we’ll have the wisdom to build upon this progress as we emerge from the pandemic. 

There is one area where I fear we’ve not made as much progress: 


That’s not to suggest that managers haven’t learned to adapt to this disrupted world of work. I’m sure many managers feel like they’ve had to change a lot throughout this past year. 

But, management wasn’t working all that well before the pandemic. Employee engagement has been atrociously low on the average for the past several decades.

And it’s not the manager’s fault. We’ve been trapped in an outdated model of management for decades. 

Management Needs an Upgrade 

Our model of management hasn’t changed that dramatically over the past hundred years. At its core, management is still viewed as the function that ensures employees are doing their jobs.

In other words, management is responsible for enforcing compliance with the “contract” of employment, whether that contract is formal or implied. The manager’s job is to ensure the organization gets its money’s worth out of the employee. 

The manager is aided by management and HR processes designed to assist in this compliance work: policies, performance appraisals, job descriptions, performance improvement plans, and more. 

When you step back and look at these processes using the lens of history, it becomes clear that there are some significant underlying assumptions built into traditional management practice: 

  • Employees will only perform up to their expectations at work if they’re made to do so through oversight and regulation. 
  • Employees are a means of production. They are the machinery that creates work products. 
  • Management’s job is to maximize these human machines’ production output to give the company the best ROI on its labor investment. 

If this sounds harsh, I get it. We’ve learned not to talk about people this way. Instead of human machines, we call them human resources. It sounds nicer. 

But, look back at the discomfort leaders had with sending people to work from home. 

Employees had been clamoring for more flexibility and permission to at least occasionally work from home for years. They were told it wasn’t possible. 

Then, the pandemic forced it into reality, and leaders openly worried about people not doing their work when they were at home, removed from their “management.” It was assumed that people would watch Netflix all day. 

There was little faith in the beginning that it would work. The assumptions of traditional management were showing themselves. 

The Problem with Performance Management

Another place you can see these assumptions show their faces is when an employee is under-performing. Traditional management leads us to conclude there’s something wrong with the employee. 

Typically, we assume they aren’t adequately motivated or focused. To fix the performance issue, you need to fix the employee. That’s why performance improvement plans exist. 

And, it’s why they are terribly ineffective. A performance improvement plan is more likely to break an employee’s spirit than to improve their performance. 

This model of management is outdated and dangerous. 

Work today in no way resembles the work that gave birth to this model. In today’s (and especially tomorrow’s) world of work, the things that create the most value are not only natural to humans but are things that we are intrinsically motivated to do.

If management would just get out of the way. 

Employees Are Not Machines

Employees are complex, living creatures who are capable of extraordinary things. 

When vast numbers of employees were sent to work from home, often while also managing caregiving or homeschooling responsibilities, they rose to the challenge despite the expectations to the contrary. 

People have proven that they can do good work—sometimes better work—when released from the burden of constant management oversight. 

Management is the operating system of your organization. It defines how work gets done. 

What we’ve seen clearly over the past year is that the current operating system isn’t compatible with the needs of modern work. 

It’s time for a new operating system starting with an entirely new set of assumptions.

From Production to Cultivation

As a kid growing up on a farm, I got put to work at a pretty early age. By the time I was 11 years old, I was being sent out into the field to do tasks like picking up rocks and, my least favorite, walking beans. 

At the time, walking beans was the most effective way for farmers to deal with weeds. Weeds grow far faster than the soybean plants in the fields, so they will choke out the beans and ruin the farmer’s yield if left unchecked. 

So, a small crew of us would walk up and down the long row in the fields, using a sharpened garden hoe or corn knife (think machete) to cut the weeds out one by one. 

It was boring, mundane work. 

Battling weeds is one of the many things farmers do to care for their crops. They also have to fight disruptive insects, add fertilizers, irrigate when there was too little water or tile when there was too much. 

For farmers, this work is called cultivation. 

Farmers start with the assumption that when they put a seed in the ground, as long as it has what it needs to grow (water, nutrients, etc.) and there aren’t any obstacles that get in the way of its growth (weeds, insects, etc.) that seed will grow and flourish into the best version of itself.

Farmers trust the plant to do what it is programmed to do in its DNA: grow and perform. The work of cultivation facilitates and enables the plant’s growth by ensuring it has everything it needs to optimally grow AND quickly remove any obstacles or barriers that might get in the way. 

The plant does the rest. 

Approaching Management as Cultivation

Just like the success of management, the success of farming is tied to the performance of living things. Certainly, humans are more complex than plants, but it’s hard to argue that we are just as programmed from birth for growth and performance. 

If you’ve ever spent time around young children, it’s impossible not to marvel at how they learn and develop simply by observing the world around them. 

Small children learn to communicate, talk, crawl, walk, and so much more simply through observation and genetic programming. We are born to learn, grow, and perform. It is in our DNA.

When our needs are met and our path is clear of obstacles, we can do remarkable things. And we all have a longing to be better, to move along that path being remarkable. We all have an innate desire to succeed. 

I’d ask you to consider if you’ve ever met someone who you honestly think wakes up in the morning every day hoping to fail, longing for the opportunity to let others down. 

I’m confident I never have. I’ve met people who have ended up in a self-destructive place due to years of unmet needs and brutal obstacles. But, no one who deliberately chose to end up in that place. 

Given the opportunity and support, I’d argue that every human being would choose success over failure every time. 

When we realize this truth, something becomes very clear. The farmer has the model of management we need. 

It’s been right in front of us the whole time. 

The new operating system of management must be cultivation.  

The Cultivation Mindset

The first and most important step to replacing our production-oriented management model with a cultivation management model is to replace the faulty assumptions about people and management laid out earlier.

Cultivation starts with an entirely different set of assumptions. I call these the cultivation mindset.

When we adopt a cultivation mindset, everything about how we approach and think about management starts to change. 

The cultivation mindset is built upon the core assumption that humans are naturally programmed for growth and performance. Managers should operate with the same confidence in this programming as farmers do for their crops. 

That means management’s work is to deeply understand the needs and obstacles of their people to ensure they’re creating an optimal environment and opportunity to perform.  

Let me frame this up in another way.

The Assumptions of a Cultivation Mindset:

  • Growth and performance is the default setting for all humans. 
  • When people have what they need and are free of obstacles, they will choose to perform and do the right thing.  
  • The role of management is to cultivate performance by meeting needs and removing barriers.
  • Cultivation requires a deep understanding of the needs and challenges of your people.
  • When there is a performance issue, it’s a failure of management. 

From these assumptions, you are likely to make different decisions about how you approach management and your role with your team. 

When you look at the research about what employees are clamoring for at work (development, care, connection, trust, coaching, etc.), it’s crystal clear that this is the type of management they are longing for. 

Particularly now, when our workforce is more distributed and dynamic than ever before, the need for cultivation has never been more urgent. 

This is why we created my Managing Virtual Teams course and why it begins with an entire module on mindset. Managing successfully going forward isn’t simply about learning a few new techniques.

It’s about adopting an entirely different way of managing. And that’s a huge opportunity. 

How we got here doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what we do next. 

Cultivation is the key. You can start the transformation today.  


Related Reading:

The #1 Management Imperative for 2021

3 Simple Tips for Managing Remote Employees

Why Performance Management Still Sucks

3 Questions to Increase Your Impact as a Manager

A Great Tool for Creating Clear Expectations
A Great Tool for Creating Clear Expectations
A Great Tool for Creating Clear Expectations 1080 721 Jason Lauritsen

In my last post, I shared a story of the consequences that can occur when we aren’t clear on expectations within our work relationships. 

Having clarity within any relationship is vital, and it’s something that we all too often leave to chance. 

I also encouraged you to use the golden rule of management as a means to create clarity: “If it matters, write it down.” 

This is important and powerful—the act of committing things to writing forces clarity. 

But, what if you aren’t sure what matters? 

A life-changing tool.

Several years ago, I was lucky enough to connect with Christina Boyd-Smith

Christina is a coach for leaders and teams. I knew I would like her before we even met because her coaching practice is called Corporate Rebel Coaching. What’s not to love about that? 

Over the past several years, I’ve gotten to know and admire Christina. One of the things that I love most about her is that she is truly authentic, and she practices what she preaches.

I wish I’d had her as my coach back in my corporate rebel days, but I’m thrilled to know her now.

Christina introduced me to a process she created called a “Designed Alliance.”

The first time I experienced creating a Designed Alliance was when we kicked off a collaborative project together. 

It was a structured, step-by-step process of walking through some pointed questions that drove us to real clarity about the work we were about to do. It allowed us to move forward with confidence about how we would work together to ensure a positive outcome. 

I was instantly hooked. 

In asking her more about this process, she shared how she uses this personally throughout all parts of her life. They use it as a family when planning a trip. She uses it with her spouse when they are undertaking a project together.

And, she teaches and uses it in her coaching all the time so her clients can take it forward and use it in their work and personal lives as well. 

In essence, it’s a tool to help you focus on what matters and clarify your expectations around those things in any relationship—work or personal.

This process is essentially a list of questions to discuss to help you clarify your expectations about how you will work together and what success will look and feel like. 

Below is a link to download a pdf with instructions and the whole process, so I won’t cover the entire process here.

But, I do want to share a couple of my favorite discussion questions that it includes:  

How do you want it to feel between you and around you during this alliance?

This question is so important and one we rarely discuss. If we are going to do something together, how do we want it to feel? Are we both on the same page at this critical level? 

If you want it to feel easy and laid back while I want it to feel energized and fast-paced, we probably need to talk it through before we start and find some middle ground. 

How do you want to be if things go wrong?

Again, what a great question to discuss before things go wrong. Creating agreements in advance for these situations removes so much angst and tension.

There are a total of eight steps in the process, most of which involve questions to discuss. As you discuss them, you should capture in writing your agreements and shared understanding. 

You can download a pdf of the process from Christina’s site here.

It is a powerful process that I’ve used in both my work and personal life many times. 

But, not often enough. 

When debriefing how the project I described in my last post went wrong, I immediately knew that the outcome would have been entirely different if we’d created a designed alliance. 

All of the hurt and misunderstanding would have been eliminated before we even started. And, we would have had agreements in place for how to handle things when they veered off course.  

It was a powerful reminder of how potent the designed alliance process is. 

I encourage you to download the document and give it a try. It will change your relationships. 

Let me know how it goes. 


Related Reading:

I Broke My Own Golden Rule—Here’s What Happened

Clear Expectations = Great Relationships 

How Do You Repair Your Relationships?

Engagement starts with Expectations

if it matters write it down
I Broke My Own Golden Rule—Here’s What Happened
I Broke My Own Golden Rule—Here’s What Happened 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

Recently, I collaborated with a friend on a project. It wasn’t a big project, and we weren’t doing it for money. It was more of an exploratory effort that we were both interested in doing, so we decided to do it together.

The two of us have been friends for years but had never done any work together, so it was an exciting opportunity. We jumped right in.  

Over several weeks as the project started coming to its conclusion, my friend shot me a note. In it, she asked for us to do a debrief after it was all over to talk about how everything went. 

It turns out the project wasn’t playing out at all how she had expected. It wasn’t feeling the way she wanted it to feel, and in her eyes, it didn’t feel like a success. 

In hindsight, I went into the project with very few expectations. The biggest reason for me to do it was to work with my friend on something meaningful. I thought it would be an excellent opportunity for the two of us to spend some time together creating something cool. It was supposed to be fun and energizing for us both. 

So, when it turned out that it wasn’t a good experience for her, I was heartbroken. I didn’t care nearly as much about the project as I do about her and our relationship. 

And the most frustrating part is that we could have avoided this if I’d only followed my own advice. 

My golden rule 

What went wrong in my project with my friend was a failure to get mutually clear upfront about our expectations—both of the project and one another’s role within the project. 

This shouldn’t be surprising. I preach in my training programs and speeches that a vast majority of performance failures at work result from a lack of clarity about expectations.

The same is true in relationships. When we allow ambiguous or unclear expectations of one another to exist within relationships, the relationship always suffers.

The solution to this problem is what I refer to as my golden rule:

If it matters, write it down. 

Why it matters

When it comes to any relationship, work or personal, to create optimal clarity about the agreements and expectations that matter the most, you need to put them down in writing.  

Notice that I’m not saying “discuss” them or “talk about” them. Sure, discussing your expectations with someone is far better than not discussing them. But I’ve been in far too many discussions over the years where I’ve come away with one understanding and the other person with something completely different. 

When you write something down, the opportunity for misunderstandings and different interpretations narrows dramatically.  

The act of committing our expectations to paper makes the intangible, tangible. Suddenly, we can see the fuzzy gray areas in our expectations of one another and choose to make those parts clear. 

Had my friend and I spent 30 minutes at the beginning of our project calibrating our expectations and writing them down, the project would have been a success on all fronts. 

What should you write down? 

This is probably the first question that comes to mind, particularly if you aren’t in the habit of writing down expectations and agreements. 

At work, if an expectation exists that affects how we feel about or evaluate our work, it should be written down. This could include any number of things:

  • Performance goals

  • Behavioral expectations

  • Team norms or shared agreements

  • Meeting ground rules

  • Purpose and vision

  • Strategic and other plans

  • Project assignments and roles

  • Deadlines

The list could go on. Another trick I’ve found helpful is to write down things that drive you crazy when others do (or don’t do) them or that you find yourself coaching or nudging others about frequently.  

Writing things down can also be incredibly powerful in all aspects of your life. When I coached youth basketball, I wrote down my expectations not just for players, but also for parents to clarify their role and standard of behavior. 

At home, my family went through a Brené-Brown-inspired exercise where we wrote down our family agreements like, “Say you are sorry and mean it” and “Be kind.” 

Taking time to write down expectations moves everyone to clarity far more quickly, which means less friction in the relationship and makes it much more likely that everyone ends up satisfied and happy. 

Clarity fuels accountability

Being clear on expectations not only makes it far more likely that things will happen as expected, but it also sets the stage for mutual accountability. This can be true between two people or across a team (or organization). 

For example, here’s an expectation that was in place for a former team I led: 

“No surprises. Good news or bad news should always be old news.”

This created a bond and expectation within the team to keep each other informed and ensure that if one team member got wind of something that would affect another, they would give them a heads up.  

This mutual expectation affected behavior. It also made it easier to provide feedback and coach when it didn’t happen. 

When someone didn’t get out ahead of something (good or bad) and a teammate got caught off, we could point to the shared expectation. “We agreed to no surprises. What happened here?”

When expectations are clear, accountability follows.  

Why don’t we write it down?

If writing down expectations is so effective, why aren’t more of us doing it regularly?  

There are two main reasons I’ve found—it’s not easy, and it takes time. Clarity requires work and effort. It’s always worth it, but it’s easy to skip.

Also, we’ve gotten good at settling with mediocre outcomes. When things turn out okay (not how we would have hoped, but decent), we settle and move on. What we achieved was good enough to survive and advance to the next thing.

But is good enough what you’re striving for? I’m not talking about perfection here, but I am talking about having the conviction to strive for the best. It’s easy to get stuck in a cycle where good enough is the standard because we can accomplish it without doing the hard work to create clarity. 

That’s why so few people or organizations are truly clear on their values and purpose. It takes hard work and an investment of time. 

And, we’re all really busy. Even though some of our busyness is likely due to a lack of clarity caused by unclear expectations, being busy prevents us from doing the work.

This lesson is written in my book, I’ve taught it a bazillion times, yet I skipped right over it on the project with my friend and suffered the consequences. I can’t do anything to change that now, but I can use this reminder to ensure it doesn’t happen again in the future.  

I hope you’ll do the same. Write it down. 


Related Reading:

Clear Expectations = Great Relationships 

How Do You Repair Your Relationships?

Engagement starts with Expectations

The #1 Management Imperative for 2021

Sign about burnout that says things will be fine
The Other Side of Burnout – What’s Working for Me
The Other Side of Burnout – What’s Working for Me 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you were likely along for the ride last summer as I wrote about facing burnout for the first time and working my way through it.

Your responses to those posts reminded me how important it is to “show our work” as humans. Particularly in a world where it’s so tempting to curate a finely crafted version of ourselves on social media that signals to others how much we have everything under control. 

And some people do. But most of us don’t. 

Behind the curated picture is a messy reality of joy, struggle, success, and failure, all mixed together. Sometimes, things are great. Other times they suck. And then there are those that are…meh. 

We get into trouble when we stop paying attention and being honest about where we truly are. It’s when we get washed away by our circumstances and forget to care for ourselves that bad things often occur. 

2020 was rough. 2021 hasn’t been any better thus far—and it’s going to be a while before that changes. That means that we (you, me, your family, your employees) are all likely facing some challenging stuff, even if we’re projecting an aura of “everything’s fine.” 

In the past few days, signs that things are not okay have been showing up all around me. 

A friend revealed she’s fighting depression. I’d talked to her recently and she seemed to be doing well, but that wasn’t the reality. This diagnosis was even a surprise to her. Mental health is tricky and dangerous that way. 

Another friend shared that she’s struggling with some issues on her team that she’s never experienced before. Trust and communication issues are popping up like a whack-a-mole game. She’s always maintained a healthy culture with her team, but people are raw. 

And then, an article came across my radar today about “hitting the COVID wall.” As I read it, it sounds a lot like “hitting the wall” is another word for burnout. Regardless, people seem to be succumbing to the circumstances. 

If we are to be compassionate leaders, we must be aware of the challenges and help support our people both in practicing self-care and throwing them a lifeline when they get swallowed up by it all. 

And, just as importantly, we need to take care of ourselves. If we aren’t whole and well, it’s really tough to support others in doing so. 

To that end, I wanted to share with you what I’ve been practicing for self-care to keep myself in a good place and prevent the burnout I experienced last summer. Before I do, a disclaimer:  

These work for me—that’s all I know for certain. It’s not meant as a definitive prescription but rather as inspiration for your own self-care practice or that of your team. 

Self-Care Practices to Beat Burnout

While I know a lot is said about how silly New Year’s resolutions are because people rarely follow through, I find the turn of the new year to be a powerful opportunity to punch the reset button. It’s a great opportunity to wipe the slate clean and recommit to what’s important. And that’s what I did this year.  

While nothing I’m doing now is new to me, per se, the way that I’m approaching it is. I’m keeping a simple daily journey where I essentially record my progress each day. Mainly, it’s a practice of self-accountability. 

1. Meditation

For years, I avoided even trying meditation because it sounded intimidating and complicated. But a few years ago, based on the urgings from a friend, I decided to try it. I discovered that it doesn’t have to be hard and is really valuable. 

Despite that, I’ve not been consistent about my practice. I’d do it regularly for a while and then stop. For 2021, I’ve committed to meditating each day, and it’s having a profound impact. 

Most simply, meditation is about cultivating greater awareness—awareness of both the world around you and how you respond to it.

Cultivating this awareness helps you stay in touch with what’s going on inside your head and heart. This, in turn, equips you to take action when needed. Meditation isn’t an end-all, but it’s powerful. 

If you aren’t sure where to start, there are some great apps to help you.  I’ve used both Headspace and Calm in the past. Currently, I’m using the Ten Percent Happier app. All of them are good, and they all have free programs to help you get started. All you need is the app and a little bit of quiet space to give it a try.  

2. Exercise 

In full transparency, I never stopped exercising even before my burnout. So, exercise alone isn’t an adequate self-care practice. I used to think it was. But, exercise for me is critical. 

And it’s been challenging at times during the pandemic to keep this commitment. A few months before all of this started last year, I’d become a member at Orangetheory, a group workout gym, and I loved it. But just as I was getting into the groove of it, it was taken away. 

As a runner, I turned to running and for the summer months, I ran a lot. But then, plantar fasciitis struck, and I’ve not been able to run for months. There are always roadblocks to getting more exercise, but there is always a way. 

When Orangetheory closed, they started publishing at-home workout videos. I’d never worked out to a video in my life but quickly discovered you could get a great workout at home if you open your mind a bit. 

We also decided to invest in a treadmill late summer so that even as the winter months closed in and the temps dropped, we could still run (or walk, in my case right now). There’s always a way to keep active. 

3. Diet

I’m a stress eater and drinker. When things are strained, nothing sounds more appealing to me than a pizza and a few beers. When I eat and drink like this, my sleep suffers. Then I get progressively more tired. 

When I’m tired, I crave carbohydrates and foods that aren’t great for my body. When I eat those, I don’t feel great, and I find it hard to do my best work. That leads to more stress, which leads to more poor eating and drinking.  

It’s become a common joke of the times to talk about your “COVID 19,” the weight gain many of us have added since the pandemic began. Mine was a COVID 17. I came out of my burnout and into 2021 weighing more than I had in years. This didn’t feel good at all, so I decided that I needed to control what I could. 

I know how to eat healthily. So, I made that change. I also cut way back on my alcohol consumption. While I can’t claim a dry January, I was close. As a result, my sleep is better, which makes it easier to control my eating and drinking. 

And, I feel better and stronger than I have in years. The COVID 17 is nearly gone. 

4. Clear Out The “Psychic Baggage”

Before you think I’ve lost it, let me explain what I mean by “psychic baggage.” One of the things I noticed coming into 2021 (perhaps due to more meditation) was that there were many things on my mind that required me to take some action but that I wasn’t doing anything about. 

One was a conversation with my son. Another was a relationship check-in with my wife. Several were as simple as emails sitting in my email box waiting on a reply. For one reason or another, I’d been putting all of these things off. And I realized that by doing so, they were occupying space in my mind that couldn’t be used for anything else. 

It was psychic baggage that I was unnecessary carrying around. And the weight of it was undoubtedly having an effect. So, I decided to start clearing it out. 

At first, I had to deal with the backlog. It was like moving through a checklist; but with every checkmark I added, I felt lighter. Eventually, I arrived at a place where I finished my initial list. The work now is not to pick up any new baggage. The mindfulness of meditation helps a lot with this. 

This practice is really about asking yourself, “what am I putting off that’s weighing on me right now?” This is a great journaling prompt (another thing I’ve been doing weekly). Once you identify your baggage, step into it and do what needs to be done to put it down. That doesn’t mean you need to solve the issue, necessarily—it just means that you take the next step. 

5. Self-compassion

Last but certainly not least is practicing what I preach on myself. I’ve written about the importance of compassion as a leader this year. That needs to first extend to ourselves. It’s about realizing that we are also struggling and won’t always get it right.

For me, this has been important. Despite my goal to not drink alcohol for the first two weeks of the year, watching the events of January 6 unfold on television derailed me. Self-compassion allowed me to extend care and forgiveness to myself, cut myself some slack, and start the next day anew.

We can’t always get it right. We are imperfect. But, we are worth the same care and concern we offer others. Be kind to yourself. When things don’t go well, forgive yourself and reconnect to your intentions. Then give it another go.  

The Key to Beating Burnout 

Wellbeing is a topic you’ll be hearing a lot about from me this year. If there’s one thing the pandemic has made crystal clear, it’s that we need to do a much better job caring for our people and ourselves.  

In the modern era of work, human beings are the mechanisms of production in the ways machines were to the industrial era. And while I know that sounds sort of harsh when put into words, it’s true. It’s our intellect, creativity, willpower, and motivation that drives our organizations. 

In the context of work, wellbeing is the degree to which we, as human beings, are able to offer our best contributions. It’s care and maintenance. And without it, we can never optimize engagement or performance. 

It’s also the degree to which we can offer our best contributions across all aspects of our lives. While many innovations will impact work in the future, none is more important than the progress we can make related to wellbeing.  

The best way to learn is to start with yourself. Experiment with self-care and learn what works for you. Then share your story with others as both inspiration and to act as a role model. 


Mark your calendar:

  • March 11, 2-3 p.m. ET – My What’s nEXt webcast in March will feature Mettie Spiess for a conversation about what progress we are making on supporting mental health at work (and what more we need to be doing). 
  • March 31, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. ETWellbeing 2021 – Humanity Comes to Work. This is a day-long virtual event I’m producing with AchieveEngagement and WELCOA that you won’t want to miss. 
birthday cake
My Birthday Wish for 2021
My Birthday Wish for 2021 1080 540 Jason Lauritsen

Last year, I published a post on my birthday where I shared a birthday wish (actually a couple) for 2020. This year, I make it a tradition. 

There’s something magical about wishes. 

Wishing gives you the freedom to ask for anything, no matter how improbable. There are no rules when it comes to wishes. 

But that’s not all. 

A wish allows us a peek deep inside ourselves—to the place where we keep the dreams and ambitions we rarely talk about. It’s a whisper that reminds us what we truly want. 

We should all wish more. Especially given the crazy state of the world we live in. 

But, we should also talk about our wishes—out loud with other people. When we commit our wishes to words, they find power. They invite us to take the steps we can to make them come true. 

With that, I share with you my wish for the year ahead.

My Birthday Wish for 2021

Last year, my wish was that all people could find work that provides them both an adequate living wage and an experience that makes them feel like more, not less, each day. That wish remains not only unfulfilled but also further out of reach today than ever. 

But, I’m hopeful that the wake-up call provided by this pandemic will jar employers into doing a better job of caring for their people. In some ways, we’ve made progress, and in many, we’ve lost ground. 

My wish this year is also big and challenging, but this time it’s a call to action. My hope is that you share my wish and will join me on this journey.  

So, here it is: 

I wish that every person will find the courage to investigate their beliefs and be brave enough to abandon or replace those which don’t align with their values or intentions.  

When I was in college, I discovered the study of philosophy and fell in love with it. While I know that studying philosophy in college is joked about by many, those classes are among the most important learning experiences of my life. 

Philosophy teaches you how to think better. It forces you to confront things that our human nature encourages us to ignore.  

One of my favorite classes was Philosophy of Religion. It was taught in partnership by two of my favorite professors, one from the philosophy department and the other from religious studies. 

This class, while being one of my favorites, was also one of the most challenging. While the reading and coursework were important, my personal revelations during the course changed my life.  

Most significantly, I realized that my entire religious belief system was something I’d inherited. I’d never been offered a choice, nor had I ever thought deeply about what I believed. I’d been going to church for as long I had been alive. 

I didn’t choose this belief system. I’d absorbed it as part of my lived experience. As a result, I’d never considered how this inherited set of beliefs affected how I viewed and showed up in the world. 

Through philosophy, I learned how to interrogate my beliefs and see them more clearly. Upon doing that, I was able to make an intentional choice about what I believed and why. 

As I think back about it, I remember how hard it felt because so much of my identity was tied up in this religious belief system. I remember the tension of wondering, “what if I find out that I don’t really believe these things? If this part of who I am isn’t what I thought it was, who am I?”

It was scary as a 19-year-old. But, I was still early in my life. My identity wasn’t even close to being shaped. The stakes felt high to my younger self, but it was precisely the right time to ask the question. 

In the end, the fear was misplaced. I discovered that through an exploration of your most foundational beliefs, you learn what you truly believe and why. And when your beliefs have been thoroughly investigated, and you’ve intentionally chosen them, you achieve freedom. 

You are no longer fearful of putting your beliefs out on the table for discussion and challenge because you understand where they came from. And, you know that you are capable of change when warranted.

This class and this experience set me free. It was for me, in many ways, like taking the red pill from Morpheus and being unplugged from the Matrix. It confronted me with another important question that I hope we all ask more often:  

What other beliefs have I inherited that might be affecting how I see and show up in the world?

Given what we’ve experienced over the past twelve months, it feels more important now than ever before for all of us to step back and really challenge ourselves on what we believe. Few of us are happy with the state of the world. To fix it starts with each of us individually. 

I’ve had to dig in over the years to confront and replace beliefs and biases I didn’t even know I had. Growing up in a small town in Iowa when I did, I had virtually no diversity exposure. Everyone was white. Nearly everyone was Christian. Most households looked like a variant of the Leave to Beaver show.

I don’t say that to be critical. My family and community were loving and supportive, and encouraging in so many ways that I’m eternally grateful for. 

But as I started interrogating my belief systems, I couldn’t escape the reality that I had inherited racist, sexist, homophobic beliefs and biases—not because someone intentionally put them there, but by nature of the experiences I had (or didn’t have) growing up. 

It hurts today to write this about myself. It’s hard to confront these realities, to admit that I was and am flawed in such significant ways. I’d love to say that I’ve fixed all of these things, but it’s not that simple. It’s a lifelong journey and commitment. 

What I can tell you is that I constantly investigate my beliefs and how I’m showing up in the world. Today, I am clear on my values and my beliefs are chosen. And, I continue to be a work-in-progress. 

My wish is that you will join me in this exploration of what you believe and why. Over the past year, we’ve seen people do and say things in the name of political parties that are abhorrent and appalling. Hopefully, that’s challenged us to step back from the party wars and ask exactly what we believe and why. What’s really important? 

I’ve seen white people get incredibly defensive at the mere suggestion that they might be racist, have racist biases, or that they benefit from privilege. And while I understand that it hurts to be confronted with this label, instead of being defensive, we should dig into what we believe and why. If you are committed to being anti-racist, part of the journey involves confronting your racism. There’s no way around it.  

Acknowledging your own racism or sexism allows you to confront it and do something to replace it. Ignoring it changes nothing.  

The invitation in my wish is to find the courage to look inside and see what’s there. Yes, it can feel scary to investigate a belief you’ve held your entire life. But, if that belief isn’t aligned with your values or the impact you wish to have on the world, then by not investigating it, at the least, you’re allowing your identity to be hijacked and suffering the consequences of an inauthentic life. At worst, your unexamined beliefs may be having a negative impact on those around you. 

In our hyper-polarized world, we have an opportunity to step back and get clear about who we are and what we believe. When your feet are firmly planted on intentional beliefs and clear values, the tide of polarization and divisiveness can not sweep you away. 

Let’s make 2021 a year of discovery and rebirth.


Related Reading:

My Birthday Wish for 2020

Burnout and Putting Me Back Together Again

The #1 Management Imperative for 2021

Virtual Meetings
Top 5 Virtual Meetings WORST Practices (and How to Fix Them)
Top 5 Virtual Meetings WORST Practices (and How to Fix Them) 1080 540 Jason Lauritsen

At the end of last year, I created a fun survey to invite people to share their biggest frustrations with virtual meetings at work. It was an invitation to vent, complain, and let it all out.

Eighty of you took the opportunity to share your biggest gripes. And thanks to my friends at Waggl, who allowed us to use their technology, not only did people share their issues with virtual meetings, they got to see the responses from others and vote up those that resonated the most strongly with them.

In all, there were over 600 votes cast to help us narrow down the worst practices of virtual meetings. Today, I’m going to share the results with you to motivate you to be both a better meeting host and participant in the future.

Then, I’ll share a few tips on making your virtual meetings more effective and less terrible in the future. Perhaps one of the nasty legacies of 2020 that we can leave behind is awful meetings.

5 Worst Practices for Virtual Meetings

Below is a list of the most commonly cited challenges and issues people shared about their experiences with virtual meetings. Each of the five represents my best effort at summarizing a common theme in responses.

I’m also sharing a few snippets of actual responses to help you feel the pain and frustration that accompanied each. And there is plenty to go around.

As you read, it might be helpful to remember that meetings generally sucked before they were forced to become virtual. The move to virtual seems to have amplified the bad stuff and stripped out some of the good.

Without further ado, here is the list.

1. Multitasking

This one really annoys people. If you’re going to have a meeting, be at the meeting.

“Meetings need to be more alive and human, and I don’t want to be on another Zoom call where people are bored and multitasking!”

“It’s too easy to sit back, let others do the talking, stay off video or stay on mute, and let the meeting happen. If you’re important to the meeting, show up ready to contribute.”

“People who are obviously multitasking during a meeting are bad—talking, typing, eating, cooking, showering, you name it. But, people who forget or choose not to mute themselves and then go about multitasking in the loudest way possible are the worst!”

2. Too many meetings

It’s one thing to have bad virtual meetings. It’s another thing to be stuck in terrible virtual meetings all day. People complained that one reason there are too many is that meetings are being overused. When in doubt, schedule a meeting. Oof.

“Much like in-person meetings, sometimes it could have been an email or a phone call. We don’t need to look at each other all the time!”

“If you have an open block visible on your calendar then we MUST have a meeting so I can consume all chances of productivity!”

“Back to back to back meetings all day…”

“[We] don’t get the side conversations like before. If you just want to quickly connect with someone, it turns into another meeting.”

3. Tech fails

Virtual meetings can’t happen without technology. And I’m grateful that we have it in a time of pandemic-required isolation. But, with technology comes technology snafus—both on the part of meeting planners and attendees.

“People who don’t take the time to learn the platform so you spend the first seven minutes troubleshooting.”

“People blaming technology when it is really a user error.”

“People who forget they are not muted and say things they shouldn’t.”

“People not muting themselves when they aren’t talking and making noise (sometimes carrying on conversations with others who are in person with them or on their mobile). We should know better by now!”

“It’s always a challenge to be heard (without my kids chit-chatting in the background) and to hear (without blowing an eardrum using my headphones), but the WORST is when someone figures out the worst possible combination of audio options and has the Feedback of Doom. Kill me now.”

4. No facilitation or structure

While this is not a new issue, moving meetings to a virtual setting seems to amplify when a meeting lacks an agenda or purpose. It also feels more acute when the person leading the meeting doesn’t guide the discussion.

This lack of facilitation and structure manifests in many different (and annoying) ways. From people speaking over one another to poor time management, it’s a problem.

“When there isn’t a clear agenda or the meeting could be solved in an email or assignment.”

“It doesn’t necessarily bother me when participants are a couple of minutes late, but when the meeting organizer is on time but then starts the meeting 10 minutes late to wait for others, it’s a pet peeve. Then the meeting runs overtime unnecessarily.”

“People talking over each other and nobody hearing anything.”

“Seems our meetings are less focused. I appreciate the check-ins, but let’s also make progress on something. It’s hard to not tune out when we’re on the 823rd canned self-care lecture. If it were genuine that would be helpful, but it’s not so let’s move on.”

5. Hiding (e.g., not turning your camera on)

This last worst practice is unique to virtual meetings. If it’s a video meeting, people hate it when you don’t turn on your camera. Which makes sense, I suppose, since you couldn’t hide your face if you were meeting in person (or at least it would be very weird).

“People in meetings who don’t or won’t turn their camera on”

“The folks who reluctantly turn on video, but make sure the camera is only seeing the top of their heads.”

“People who do not turn on their camera when others do. I certainly understand the argument for those who do not have good working conditions or have to get WiFi from a parking lot. But for colleagues who I know are at home in a normal environment, it’s frustrating when they don’t engage visually—ever. I find that it impacts the cadence and overall “feel/vibe” of the conversation when you can’t see their expression. Not all meetings have to be video but when they are, everyone should be on.”

How to Fix your Virtual Meetings

I hope that your meetings aren’t as painful as some of these sound. But it sure feels like there’s much room for improvement in how we meet virtually.

Now, let’s turn our attention to what to do about these issues. Here are some tips to help you create better meetings for your team this year.

1. Make sure you need a meeting before you schedule it.

Since the pandemic struck, our default setting has been to schedule a meeting for everything. It feels like the right thing to do since we don’t see each other in the office.

This has to change.

Meetings aren’t bad. But, too many meetings or meetings with no clear purpose are. Before you schedule a meeting, hit the pause button and ask yourself a few questions:

  • Is a meeting really necessary?
  • What is the purpose?
  • What needs to be accomplished?
  • Is live discussion needed?
  • Is there a good alternative? Could an email or a quick phone call do the job?

Instead of more meetings, we need more meaningful interactions. Change your default setting to “schedule a meeting only when necessary.” When you have a meeting, make it an engaging and positive use of everyone’s time.

2. Have a plan

Meetings are expensive. If you do the math to calculate the number of dollars invested in each meeting in both the salary of those at the meeting and the opportunity cost of other productive work that cannot happen during the meeting, it’s real money.

That kind of investment warrants that time be invested in planning how the meeting will be used. Before scheduling a meeting, you should be able to clearly articulate the purpose and objectives. You should also be able to clearly describe what outcomes will be achieved.

Only once you’ve achieved this clarity should you decide who should be invited. Ask yourself these two questions:

  • Who needs to be there to achieve our objectives?
  • What role do you expect each person to play?

As you could hear in the responses above, the worst meeting is one where you aren’t clear why it’s happening or why you’re there. Meetings like this are a result of a lack of preparation and intention.

A little planning will go a long way toward making your meetings more effective, engaging, and productive.

3. Use an Agenda of Questions

When you’ve planned your meeting well, creating the agenda is simple. But, not all agendas are created equal.

One suggestion from Steven Rogelberg, author of The Surprising Science of Meetings, is to use questions to frame your agenda. What questions need to be addressed or solved to accomplish your meeting’s objectives?

Using questions feels more dynamic than traditional agendas that read like to-do lists. Questions also help clarify exactly what needs to be discussed in the meeting to help with focus.

4. Set the Stage in Advance

Prior to the meeting, share the purpose, objectives, and agenda with all attendees. If preparation is required, be very specific in terms of what needs to be done and why.

In addition, use this communication as an opportunity to establish expectations or protocols for your meeting. Be explicit and detailed. Use the general rule, “If it matters, write it down.”

Here are some examples:

  • The meeting will begin on time. If you are going to be late for any reason, please join when you can.
  • This is a “camera on” meeting. Come as you are, but be prepared to have your camera on and be fully engaged.
  • Find your mute button and use it. When you aren’t speaking, please mute yourself so you aren’t distracting from who is speaking.
  • Please limit distractions during the meeting. Out of respect for your calendar, I’ve only scheduled 30 minutes. If everyone is focused and engaged, we should be able to avoid a follow-up meeting.

Setting the stage in advance makes it infinitely more likely that attendees will behave as expected and the meeting will be productive.

5. Facilitate the meeting.

Notice that I didn’t say “lead” the meeting. Great meetings don’t require leaders; they require facilitation.

To facilitate, by definition, is “to make easier or less difficult; help forward (an action, a process, etc.).” That’s what most bad meetings, virtual or otherwise, are often lacking—someone to help move things forward and make things less difficult.

If you called the meeting, this role either falls to you, or you need to designate someone to facilitate. Here are some tips for effective facilitation:

  • Set the ground rules up front for how the meeting will work (video on/off, mute buttons, how to get the floor to speak, proper ways to use chat, etc.)
  • Actively include all voices. This will likely involve calling on people and asking for their input or thoughts.
  • Step in when necessary to keep things moving. If someone is talking too much or going off topic, it’s on you to step in and get things back on track.
  • Keep your eye on the clock. Start and stop when promised.

6. Make tech your friend.

The amazing technology tools we have should help us create great virtual meeting experiences. But that requires our participation.

First, we have to know our tools and how to use them. If you’re using a new tech feature for a meeting, practice in advance to ensure you know how to make it work.

If you haven’t already, set clear expectations for your team and others who attend your meetings in terms of technology familiarity and proficiency. If people need training or coaching on it, make it happen.

That said, the fact that there are still so many people who claim a lack of proficiency in video meeting tools is unacceptable. If you had someone who refused to learn how to use any other piece of technology that was critical to doing their job effectively, how would you handle it?

It’s time we draw a line in the sand. It can no longer be okay to say you don’t like or are intimidated by the technology. That ship has sailed. Figure it out or find a role where you don’t need to use the technology. No more excuses.

2021: The Year We Fixed Meetings

Maybe that’s a little ambitious based on how many bad meetings are happening today. But we can make a big jump. Transforming a bad meeting into a good one can happen quickly with the right intentions and skills.

At the very least, let’s make a resolution to have fewer meetings in 2021. And when we do meet, let’s make it count.

That’s a resolution worth keeping.

The #1 Management Imperative for 2021
The #1 Management Imperative for 2021 1080 540 Jason Lauritsen

Well, we made it. We’ve turned the page from 2020. After last year, surviving the year feels like a milestone to celebrate. We certainly toasted the end of the year at our house.

Now a new year begins with at least the promise that the end of this pandemic-fueled era of disruption is on the horizon. There might be a light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.


Many of the problems that plagued us in 2020 did not vanish at the stroke of midnight on December 31. COVID is still ravaging the planet, and our lives are far from any vague memory of what “normal” used to mean.

The experts tell us we are closer to the end than the beginning, but the toughest stretch is likely still ahead of us. Not only will it be months before vaccines are distributed broadly enough to have any dramatic impact, but there’s also this issue of a trailing mental health catastrophe that’s likely to unfold like a slow-motion train wreck.

Depressing, I know. But as leaders and managers of people, we need to step into this year with our eyes wide open to what’s happening around us.

Many of us are now entering the long dark winter that will confine us to our homes as the snow, wind, and frigid temperatures amplify our isolation from others. No socially-distanced driveway gatherings for a while now. The post-holiday months are going to be hard on us all.

That’s why it’s imperative that for 2021 (starting right now), we focus on cultivating and expanding our capacity for compassion.

Resilience and Compassion

As I wrote about in my 2020 reflections post, compassion was a key ingredient for me to beat my burnout last year. Learning about compassion and how it differs from empathy opened my eyes to how important and valuable it is for the road ahead, particularly as managers of others.

There’s been a lot of focus lately on resilience—specifically on helping our employees be more resilient in facing challenges and crises. While I think there is an enormous benefit to learning the skills of resilience long term, I don’t think it’s enough.

Resilience is simply defined as “the ability of a person to adjust to or recover readily from illness, adversity, major life changes, etc.” In more crude terms, it’s the ability to take a punch in life and stay in the fight.

This is an essential quality to possess as a human being. The more resilient you are, the more capable you’ve proven yourself to navigate and survive the challenges of 2020.

We could probably all benefit from developing more resilience. That said, I have concerns with organization’s current obsession with employee resilience.

First, it reflects the organizational bias to “fix employees.” We have a legacy in management to assume that when things don’t go well with an employee, it’s the employee’s fault. They don’t have the work ethic, discipline, or self-motivation. If we can fix what’s missing or broken in the employee, the problem will be solved.

The conversation about developing resilience feels similar. If we teach employees how to take a punch more effectively, we don’t have to worry about how often or how hard they’re getting punched.

I know—that’s a pretty cynical take on it. But, I don’t think it’s too far off for many organizations. And that’s not the only challenge.

It’s also really challenging to learn how to take a punch when you are under a constant barrage of punches. Building resilience isn’t easy or straightforward. It requires time and space for learning, reflection, and practice—things hard to come by when you are overworked, burnt out, or just stressed to the max as many of our employees are right now.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach our employees the skills and mindsets they need to become more resilient. This is absolutely a good thing to do that can have significant long-term benefits. But, it’s not nearly enough or fast enough. Particularly for those who are struggling the most.

Compassion is The Key

What people need more than resilience when they are facing difficulty is help. When someone is getting repeatedly punched in the face, encouraging them to keep fighting isn’t nearly as useful as making the punches stop or helping them get out of the way.

As managers and leaders (or even peers), the best way to support our people during turmoil and chaos is by cultivating compassion.

According to Hooria Jazaieri, Ph.D., compassion is a mental state or orientation toward suffering that includes four components:

  1. Bringing attention or awareness to recognizing that there is suffering
  2. Feeling emotionally moved by that suffering
  3. Wishing there to be relief from that suffering
  4. A readiness to take action to relieve that suffering

In other words, compassion is recognizing when someone else is struggling, caring that it is happening, wanting it to stop, and doing something about it. As managers, particularly right now, this is what we are called to do for our people.

“Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”
-Theodore Roosevelt

How to Be More Compassionate

As described by Dr. Jazaieri, compassion is a muscle that can be developed and strengthened with practice but which can also atrophy with lack of use. This has definitely been true for me.

I’m no expert on compassion; it’s a journey I’m on personally and professionally. But through my journey, there are insights I’ve gained that may be beneficial to you. In addition, there are a plethora of resources and training available to find and tap into if you go looking for them.

1. See beyond the behavior

For me, one of the things that I’ve learned is to practice a mindset of curiosity about others—particularly when their behavior doesn’t make sense to me. I’ve learned to remind myself that everyone is dealing with a great deal of uncertainty in their lives right now, regardless of who they are.

Uncertainty can be scary, and fear causes people to behave in various ways, some of which aren’t helpful. My challenge is to see beyond the behavior to recognize the suffering or struggle of the person. It helps me find a deeper feeling of care for them and a concern about what I can do to help their world feel less uncertain.

In general practice, this requires us to be more mindful of how we respond to other people’s behavior, particularly those who rely on us for leadership. It’s tempting to blame and judge an employee for their behavior (e.g., joining meetings late and unprepared). This leads us to show up in a way that isn’t helpful and likely to make matters worse.

Instead, lean into curiosity. Engage with the employee to ask questions about why they are late for meetings. You might discover that the meeting time coincides with when their three children are all supposed to log in to school in the morning, making it nearly impossible to make the meeting on time.

Your judgment or criticism won’t help them resolve this tension. But, your help and coaching might. Seeing beyond the behavior isn’t always easy, particularly when you’re under a lot of pressure and stressed yourself. But, it’s what your people need from you.

2. Get to know your people

When a close friend or family member behaves in a way that doesn’t make sense or is inconsistent with who they are, we don’t rush to judgment and blame them for their behavior. Instead, we ask, “what’s wrong?” or “what’s going on?”

Because we know them and have a bond with them, we assume that if they’re behaving in a way that seems counter to what we would expect, there must be something happening around them that’s causing them to act this way. We don’t assume a flaw in them as a person.

The better we know our people and the more we build a strong and trusting relationship with them, the more likely we are to show compassion when they’re struggling. It’s easier to ignore the suffering of a stranger than someone close to us.

To do this will require the investment of time. Time is the currency of relationships, and there is no shortcut. To build a better connection with your people will require that you make more time to be with them both formally and informally. When you’re together, ask questions to learn what’s most important to them and what they care about most.

3. Help until it hurts

One of the most critical parts of compassion is that it requires action. Not only must we recognize the pain and struggle in others, but we must care enough to want to take action to make it stop.

Today and for the indefinite future, we exist in a sort of limbo at work between the way we used to do things and how we’ll do things once the pandemic ends. In this limbo, people are being asked to work in circumstances they have no control over (e.g., at home while schooling children or dealing with layers and layers of safety precautions that make everything harder and slower).

They weren’t prepared for this. Neither were you. And, it’s not permanent.

Helping your people survive and make it to the other side of this limbo is probably calling on you to do things you feel you “shouldn’t have to do.” As managers, if you’re doing it right, you are more deeply involved in people’s lives than ever before, and that may be uncomfortable for you. Here’s my advice:

Get over it.

What we “should” have to do went out the window when COVID showed up. There is only what our people need right now. What they need is our help and support to get through an unprecedented time of disruption.

Among the most critical things within your control is to ensure your people know exactly what’s expected of them in terms of work performance. By making that crystal clear, you remove uncertainty so your conversations with your team can focus on what they need or are struggling with to meet those expectations.

Compassion is The Key

Let’s all hope that by the end of 2021, we are living in a post-pandemic world once again. Until then, we still exist in what could be thought of as overtime for 2020. None of the problems that existed at the end of last year have gone anywhere.

While we wait on the vaccine to do its thing, we can focus on injecting our teams and lives with a different sort of remedy. Becoming a more compassionate human and manager will help us see each other more fully and reach out to help when we need it.

Reflections and Learnings from 2020
Reflections and Learnings from 2020 1080 540 Jason Lauritsen

While this has felt like the longest year in recorded history, the end of the year sort of snuck up on me. Thankfully, it’s because I’ve been busy with work. But that means I’m behind on my end-of-year planning efforts. 

One of the things I try to do each year is reflect upon and process the past year. What went well? What didn’t go so well? 

What did I learn? 

Given what’s happened this year, that last question feels like the most important one to me. Because in a year of struggle and turmoil and disruption we were forced out of our comfort zones in dramatic ways. 

Being uncomfortable is a bad feeling. But, it is in discomfort that our growth is accelerated. And I know that’s been true for me this year. 

Today, I’m going to share my reflections on 2020—specifically, what I learned. This is the kind of writing I’d normally do in my journal to help me gain clarity. But given that we’ve all experienced so many similar challenges this year, I thought it might be valuable to share my reflections with you. 

My hope is that you’ll find something useful in these words and maybe be inspired to share some of your own learnings as well. 

Here we go. 

2020 Lessons and Reflections

What follows is a bunch of journal-style reflections. 2020 was a doozy. 

So, what did I learn? 

I am more fragile than I thought. 

As a by-product of the innumerable privileges I’ve enjoyed my entire life, I’ve never doubted my ability to navigate through challenges. I’ve always thought of myself as being inherently resilient. 

But as things unraveled early in the year, it affected me in a way I couldn’t have imagined. Yes, when the pandemic hit, I sprung into action trying to pivot and create value in the disruption. But, underneath that shield of action was fear. 

As an entrepreneur and the primary provider of income for my family, the gravity of what was happening was intense. When paired with what felt like chaos everywhere, fear really started to take hold. 

I mistook action and busyness for self-care, and as a result, I suffered burnout this summer for the first time in my life. I wrote about my journey here, and in hindsight, I’m grateful for the experience. It has helped me find a level of compassion and understanding of mental health that will shape my work and life forever. 

The experience also reminded me of the critical nature of self-care, mindfulness, and connection. Without some really important people in my life, it may have taken me a lot longer to address my burnout.  

Fear is powerful. 

There have been a lot of times in 2020 when my faith in humanity felt like it was being fractured. Whether in response to the pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, the U.S. elections, or any number of other things, it seemed everywhere I looked there were people behaving in ways that I simply couldn’t wrap my head around. 

One of the things that fuels how I show up in the world and in my work is a fundamental belief that most people, at their core, are good. But at times this year, I found this belief hard to hang on to.

The thing that ultimately helped me not abandon this belief was a reminder that people everywhere are afraid. And we’ve spent the last four years in the United States under the leadership of a president who knows only one motivational tactic: fear. 

People were already fearful for a variety of reasons before COVID got a stranglehold on us and from there it only got worse. When we’re afraid, we’re not our best selves. I know I’m not. Decent people sometimes behave in really bad ways through fear. 

This doesn’t in any way excuse the behavior. Bad behavior is bad behavior, hard stop. When you behave in a way that harms or diminishes other people or threatens their safety or freedom, you should suffer consequences. 

The lesson for me was to remember that people are afraid. And that helps me find some compassion and challenges me to search for understanding and solutions where there had only been judgment before. 

Judgment demands punishment.  

When I was working my way through my burnout, one of the things I realized had led me there was that I’d been caught in what I now describe as a “judgment vortex.”

When I looked around and saw so many people behaving in ways that made little sense to me, a narrative about that person started running in my head. My judgment of others was harsh and unforgiving. 

Thankfully, I didn’t do much externally with that judgment. So, I just held it inside. 

During my retreat this summer to start tackling my burnout, I ended up listening to a Brené Brown podcast conversation with David Kessler, the author of Find Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief

In it, one of the things David shares is that psychologically and emotionally, judgment demands punishment. When we pass judgment on someone else, either they need to be punished for their transgression or we take on the punishment for making that judgment. 

This was an epiphany to me. Judgment comes with a price and I was racking up a lot of debt in my vortex. Letting go of that judgment and replacing it with something else was critical to getting myself back to feeling whole again. 

The tactic I used (and continue to use) is that when I’m confronted with behavior that would typically trigger judgment, I have tried to instead make it a reminder of how important it is that I be the change I seek. These moments now act as a call to action rather than a passing of judgment. 

It’s not easy and I frequently lapse, but it’s helped me a lot. 

Less Empathy, more Compassion

Another podcast I listened to during my retreat was an interview with author Rutger Bregman about his new book, Humankind: A Hopeful History. Right at the moment where my faith in humanity was most fragile, his message started to reel me back in.  

I ordered the book and dug in. There is so much goodness in this book, but there’s one thing in particular that really stood out and has stuck with me—and it has to do with empathy. 

Typically, the advice for combatting judgment is to develop empathy. Empathy is having a moment right now. I’ve been riding the empathy train for quite a while. 

That’s why the advice in this book really stopped me.

“Temper your empathy, train your compassion.” 

I’d never deeply considered the differences between the two. Both demand an understanding of the other. Being curious and seeking to better understand others—who they are and why they do what they do—is a vital ingredient to both.  

The difference is at an emotional level. Empathy is “feeling with.” Compassion is “feeling for.” 

In the book, Rutger shares some research where they showed that having empathy for others, particularly those who are suffering or in need of support, often leads you to having negative feelings and increased pessimism. Not exactly what you’re needing if your goal is to help. 

Compassion, on the other hand, fuels more positive and constructive emotional responses. The way I’ve come to understand it is that both require an opening of your heart. One requires you to take on the feelings of others (empathy) while the other invites you to share what’s inside your heart (compassion). 

None of this is to say that empathy is bad or that you should stop having empathy. Empathy is a powerful tool that we should cultivate. It’s just that in some circumstances, taking on the pain of others is counterproductive when our goal is to help.  

This bit of insight helped me start to rectify how to feel about my own privilege and good fortunes in this time with those who are struggling so mightily. When I leaned into empathy, it led to feelings of conflict, which got me stuck. 

When I made the pivot to compassion, it helped free me to move forward, holding gratitude for my own circumstances while being motivated to take action to help others who need it.  

Scarcity vs. Abundance

I’ve worked hard in my career to cultivate what I call an “abundance mindset,” particularly in my business. What that means to me is that there’s plenty of opportunity to go around. 

As a result, I don’t worry about someone else popping up in my space to do similar work to what I do. I also don’t mind highlighting the work of others who do similar things to me because there is so much work to be done. 

There is plenty of opportunity if you can find your way to it. But when COVID struck and my fear started to grow, I fell out of abundance mindset into a scarcity mindset

As a speaker, March and April of this year were pretty scary. Every event for the next six months was either canceled or postponed. People who host and manage events were freaking out and all conversations about future speaking work came to a screeching halt. 

There were a lot of ways to react to this. Mine was fueled by a fear of what this might mean for me and my business. My scarcity mindset led me to conclude that the speaking business was likely gone for the next year—maybe two. 

Time to pivot.

But, once you settle into a scarcity mindset, everything starts to look treacherous. I started making assumptions and determinations about other areas of my business as well—assuming that either the economy or the virus would take away all opportunity.  

Pivot, pivot, pivot. 

This meant that I stopped scanning the horizon for opportunities in these areas. And worse, I stopped trying to find the opportunities that might be out there. 

By stopping, I was essentially manifesting my own disaster. 

At the same time, I had some projects in motion, so I kept myself busy. But busyness isn’t progress and things were looking scarier to me by the week. 

A scarcity mindset is a dangerous place to be. The road ahead kept looking more daunting and the pressure kept mounting. All while I tried to distract myself with loads of work.  

Pile this on top of a judgment vortex and you get burnout. At least that was the recipe for me.  

In hindsight, what I just described to you was a reality that existed only in my mind. I am blessed and have privilege everywhere around me. Opportunities never left me, I just let my fear overtake me. 

The speaking business did dramatically slow down for a time, but then it started to pick up again with virtual conferences and events. There were opportunities to be had, but I couldn’t see them. This was another thing that needed adjustment during my retreat this summer. 

A big part of what helped me pull out of this was conversations with trusted friends and colleagues. Talking things through made a huge difference. 

Turning the Page to 2021

2020 was a year of growth. Discomfort fuels learning and that couldn’t be more true for me. This long diatribe only captures a fraction of what I learned. I also took up the harmonica in a serious way. Plus, I rode shotgun as my wife poured her heart and soul into a campaign to be the mayor of our community only to come up a few percentage points short.

I’ve grown as a husband, parent, and human being. I’m largely proud of how I’m emerging from 2020 (albeit a few pounds too heavy with some ailing joints). 

While 2021 is likely to be another year full of challenges and disruption, there’s one thing I’m sure of: the way we emerge from this is up to us. The future is still being written and we have a big role to play in how this chapter ends.  

I, for one, am motivated to play a bigger role in 2021 fueled by my growth in 2020—powered by compassion and abundance.

I’ll close with one of my favorite quotes, first shared with me by my friend and co-conspirator, Joe Gerstandt: 

“We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims.”

-R. Buckminster Fuller

The Right Way to Support Employee Productivity
The Right Way to Support Employee Productivity 1080 540 Jason Lauritsen

Given where we find ourselves at the end of 2020, it’s not surprising that one of the biggest concerns being discussed by managers and leaders everywhere is employee productivity.

Whether your work requires you to be face-to-face with customers or patients or it confines you to a home office, there are more stressors and distractions to deal with at work today than ever before.

And as we settle into the cold winter months with pandemic trend lines pointed in the wrong directions, there’s rightful concern about employee wellbeing. An already tenuous situation is about to get worse.

With all of this happening around our people, it’s not out of line for you to be concerned about how to maintain performance levels.

So we ask, “How do we maintain employee productivity?”

This question worries me. Not so much because of the intent behind the question, but rather the use of the word, “productivity.”

Like many of the words we use in the context of work, this one is a little unclear and comes with a lot of baggage.

Productivity is one of those words that is a holdover from management’s origins in the industrial revolution. During those times, the primary job of management was to extract every bit of useful work effort out of each employee’s time on the clock.

The goal of productivity was to maximize the value that could be extracted from an employee. To maximize the return on investment in the employee’s salary.

While this made sense and was incredibly effective during a time where most work was done in factories on lines, some still use the word today to mean the same thing: to get as much work out of the employee as possible.

But, work has changed. A lot. And this way of thinking about productivity is part of what’s contributing to our current crises and leading so many people down a path to burnout.

Not THAT Kind of Productivity

There is an alternative. It reveals itself most clearly when we think about what a productive day looks like in our own lives.

Take a minute to think about the most productive day you’ve had in the past month. What happened on that day that made you label it as productive? How do you remember feeling that day?

For me, it was a day when I had a clear picture of what needed to be accomplished and completed everything in a way that felt good. At the end of the day, I felt accomplished and gave myself permission to unplug as a reward.

Your own experience may have been a day without meetings or distractions. It might have been a day when you made progress on a meaningful project you’d been putting off.

When we think about our own productivity, we think in terms of how well we are able to use our time to get done what really matters. That’s very different from the industrial definition.

No one gets to the end of the day and thinks, “Wow, I was really productive today because I literally can’t give any more effort to the company.”

As we think about how to help our people to be more productive, we need to be very clear about what we are talking about. Here’s a simple way to break it down:

In today’s world of work, productivity shouldn’t be about maximizing the value that can be extracted from employees—it’s about helping the employee most effectively and efficiently accomplish their performance objectives.

What does productivity require?

To understand productivity, we need only to examine our own experience of when we feel productive. There are some common ingredients required.

  1. Clarity about what matters and what needs to get done. Productivity isn’t about getting more work done. It’s about getting the right work done. This requires crystal clear goals and objectives. It also requires that the employee understands what is most important and why so they can prioritize completing tasks effectively. Defining expectations is doubly critical for employees working from home because they need to know with confidence how much is enough so they can maintain some balance. Otherwise, fear fueled by the uncertainty of our current world will drive them to work until they crash.
  2. Visibility to progress and impact. Part of what makes work feel unproductive is feeling like what you are doing isn’t moving things forward or making a difference. If employees are clear on what’s expected and what matters, the next thing they need is a way to know that they are making progress. This could be as simple as submitting a finished project, but in other cases it requires feedback and recognition from a manager or their peers.
  3. The resources and support needed. Nothing kills productivity faster than trying to get work done and finding that you lack what you need to do it. To head this off requires a conversation when setting expectations to anticipate and plan for resource needs. It also requires ongoing check-ins from managers to inquire about needs to ensure they’re being met.
  4. Remove obstacles. We are often our own worst enemy when it comes to supporting employee productivity. The fastest way to identify obstacles is to simply ask your people what’s the biggest challenge they face in feeling more productive each day. The most common thing you are likely to hear is meetings. Most meetings are kryptonite to productivity. I’ll be writing more about this soon, but for now, resist the urge to add meetings to your team’s schedule. Be very clear about the purpose and intention of any meetings you schedule and only include those who will get real value from being there.

Productivity and Employee Engagement

When we get clear about what we are trying to accomplish with productivity, it becomes clear that this conversation is really about employee engagement—at least in the way I define it, which is the degree to which employees are willing and able to perform to their potential.

The bottom line is that if you are doing a good job of managing and engaging your team, productivity will happen. There’s nothing new or magical we need to learn to support productivity, we just need to focus on doing the fundamentals (like those I just outlined) that we should have been doing all along.