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Jason

YOU Are The Change You Are Waiting For
YOU Are The Change You Are Waiting For 1080 565 Jason Lauritsen

I’m not sure how or why it happened. I’ve always had a high capacity for trusting other people, often before I have any idea if they are trustworthy. I can probably credit my parents and grandparents for that, plus a bit of luck early in my life. 

But regardless of how it happened, it happened. 

And here’s the interesting part, most of the people in my life have proven to be pretty trustworthy. This has been true of my friends, business partners, significant others, and colleagues. 

As I look back on some key moments in my life, I put trust in others even when it may not have been wise to do so.  

  • When my starter marriage fell apart, we only had one lawyer to represent us both. I never even appeared in court. And it worked out just fine. 
  • When one of my early business partners and I arrived at an impasse where we had to part ways, I trusted him to be fair with me on my exit even when he held all of the negotiating power. He was. 
  • When a former boss and I arrived at a point where it was obvious that it was time for me to go, I trusted that she would do the right thing to ensure I could care for my family as I figured out what was next. And even though things had gotten really tense between us, she came through.

These stories are all about the end of a relationship when trusting the other person can be really difficult. But it seems to have paid off in my experience more times than not. 

But that’s not the only time it’s happened. 

I’ve been vulnerable with people I wasn’t sure I could trust and have rarely been burned. I’ve extended my heart and emotions in relationships without any guarantee they’d be returned. Even when they weren’t, the other person was generally pretty decent about it.  

Sure, I’ve been burned a few times. But, those feel like rare exceptions when I look at the sum of my experiences with other people.

Am I just lucky? Maybe.

Is all of this just a result of my privilege? I’m sure that’s part of it too. 

But I think there’s more going on here.

It’s not just about Trust 

While being more trusting seems to have resulted in people being more trustworthy throughout my life, this power of expectation has shown up in many other ways. 

When I tried to make sense of this in my younger years, I would often say, “You teach people how to treat you.” 

It was my way of describing my experience that what you expect of others has a significant impact on how they show up with you. 

This wasn’t just in my imagination. I’ve written about the Pygmalion effect before. Our expectations of others actually can have a profound impact on their behavior, particularly if we are their manager.  

So it’s likely true that my positive (and perhaps naïve) expectations that others would be trustworthy, reliable, or helpful has had some effect on how those interactions have gone. 

But I have come to realize that there’s another force at work as well. 

Karma

When Joe and I wrote Social Gravity, one of the six laws of social gravity we wrote about was “Use karma to your advantage.” 

We invoked the word “karma” with our very western understanding of it. To us, it simply meant that what you put out into the world will return to you. 

Karma was a simple way to help people understand the awesome power of reciprocity in human relationships. 

Reciprocity describes our strong desire to repay a favor or return kindness to others. This is often described as a social norm, but it’s so common across cultures and through history that it’s thought to be a core part of how we are wired to intereact with each other as humans. 

We like to keep our relationships with others in balance. When you do something helpful or give me a gift, you make a positive investment in our relationship. This creates an imbalance that I am keen to rectify by repaying you in some way. 

You can probably think of a bunch of examples of this in your own experience. 

That time when someone unexpectedly picked up the bill for lunch, or the two friends who showed up to help you move, or that coworker who recommended you for a promotion.  

You remember these experiences because those people now have a credit or two built up in your relationship that you’d like to repay. You want to restore the balance.

Reciprocity has certainly played a big role in my experience of people throughout my life. Because I gave away trust first, it was repaid to me. And because I was taught to be helpful, that help has also come my way.  

Reciprocity is powerful and universal. It’s something you should use as a leader with great intention.  

The Moral of this Story

As a manager, when you consider how to shape or encourage a particular kind of behavior on your team, remember these two incredibly powerful mantras.

1. Use your expectations wisely.

People will live up to OR down to your expectations of them. 

2. You go first.

Harness the power of reciprocity by investing in your team the exact things you hope they will return to you (and others). Be the change you want to see in your team. 

It is a harsh reality that most of the things that challenge us about the people we manage are born from our own expectations of and attitudes about those same people. 

Change yourself first, your team will follow. 

 

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Who tells YOU when you are being a JERK?
Who tells YOU when you are being a JERK? 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

This week, while I was listening to one of my favorite podcasts, Armchair Expert, their guest shared a story about how someone had told him that he was being a jerk.

In this case, he had earned it (you listen to the episode if you’d like to hear the whole story, it’s a good one) and was grateful for that reality check. 

In fact, on the podcast, this led to a discussion about how valuable it is to have someone tell you when you are being a jerk. We all have those moments. And we could all use some help fixing our behavior when it happens. 

I know I have. 

One time in particular from early in my career stands out in my mind. As a young business owner still trying to figure out how to be a leader for my people, I made a lot of mistakes. I’ll never forget the morning when one of my people walked into my office, sat down across from me, looked me square in the eye and said, “You’re being a real jerk lately.” 

She actually used a more colorful word than this, but the message struck me like an arrow in the chest. It was a big wake-up call. Thankfully, my instinct that day was to ask questions. As a result, I learned a lot that made me a much better leader in the future.  

Being told that you are being a jerk doesn’t feel very good in the moment, but it’s really helpful feedback, and I’m always grateful for it in hindsight (sadly, I can speak with significant experience about this topic). 

Most of us don’t intend to be jerks to other people. But we are human and we are far from perfect. We get tired, impatient, irritable, distracted, and self-righteous, which sometimes can manifest in treating others poorly.  

We need to be called out for being a jerk when it’s deserved. It’s super valuable. 

In fact, having people around you who will tell you when you aren’t being the version of yourself they know you want to be is invaluable–particularly as a leader.

It’s also pretty rare. 

Why Critical Feedback is Difficult

If getting this kind of feedback is so valuable and important, why is it so challenging? Even when we are open to this kind of feedback and we want it, it’s not easy to find. 

As I wrote about in detail in my book, most of our struggles with feedback are due to human nature. 

There’s a body of recent neuroscience research that shows that our brain responds in the same way to feedback that negatively compares us to others as it does to physical pain. This is particularly true when we feel the feedback is unfair or unjust. 

Critical feedback actually hurts. As with any kind of pain, we tend to try to avoid it. 

And, to make matters worse, we tend to have an inflated view of ourselves. The Dunning-Kruger Effect explains how we have a cognitive bias to overestimate our knowledge and ability.

So nearly any feedback we receive is likely to make us feel negatively compared to others, invoking a pain-like response. Particularly at work, critical feedback can feel very threatening, so it triggers our fight or flight response. 

We get defensive. We push back. We argue. We deny.  

The person trying to help us by providing this feedback gets punished for attempting to help us. They only make that mistake once. No more feedback for you.  

How to Get the Feedback You Need

Feedback fuels learning. If you want to become better at anything, you need feedback. If you are a manager or leader of people, then it is a requirement. 

If you hope to have people around you who will tell you when you are being a jerk (or in any other way not living up to your expectations), then you have to make it safe to do so. There are some important ways you can make this happen.

1. Build relationships and trust first. 

My wife gives me feedback all the time. Sometimes, she tells me when I’m being a jerk. 

However, when she gives me that feedback, it doesn’t feel threatening because of the strength of our relationship. I implicitly trust her intention in giving me that feedback is only because she cares for what’s best for me. 

It doesn’t feel threatening because of the strength and trust in our relationship. This means no pain and no defensive response (at least not much of one…I’m still human). 

If you want the people around you to feel comfortable telling you when you are being a jerk or doing something else that doesn’t align with who you are, start with strengthening the relationship. 

Particularly as a manager or leader at work, until you’ve established really solid trust with your people, it will be really difficult for them to give you the kind of feedback you need.

In my story above, the reason this employee felt comfortable telling me I was a jerk and I was able to respond by asking questions is that we’d worked together for years and had a strong relationship. Our trust made it safe for her to tell me what I needed to hear and for me to hear it.

2. Invite the feedback.

In the story on the podcast, the person who had been told he was a jerk was out asking people for insights and feedback about a particular situation. He had invited the feedback, so when it came, he welcomed it. 

This is another tactic you can use that has roots in psychology research. When we request feedback, we are less likely to react defensively to it. 

The act of requesting it makes the feedback feel less threatening when it’s shared. Plus, we are able to prepare ourselves psychologically to receive and respond, even when it’s critical or negative. 

This may seem obvious, but if you ask for more feedback, you are likely to receive more. But don’t just do it once, make it a habit.

3. Learn these two phrases: “Thank you” and “Tell me more.”

When people give you the gift of feedback (I know being told “you’re being a jerk” doesn’t feel like a gift, but it is), don’t punish them for their courage and generosity.  

There are only two appropriate responses when receiving feedback if you hope to encourage it to happen more in the future: gratitude and curiosity. 

I remember hearing the great Marshall Goldsmith speak years ago about feedback. The biggest takeaway I still remember is learning to respond to feedback with “thank you.” 

Giving feedback can be a pretty daunting task, so when someone musters the courage to provide it to you, be grateful. This is true for all kinds of feedback: positive and critical.  

Simply say, “Thank you for the feedback. I really value your opinion.” That’s all that’s needed in many cases. 

The other phrase that’s helpful to master is, “tell me more.”

When someone shares with you that you are being a jerk, it’s a good idea to use that moment as a learning experience. “Tell me more” opens the door for them to share the details you need to do better in the future.  

More Feedback Leads to More Growth

I’ve never been one who loves receiving feedback (too sensitive, I suppose), but I’ve come to understand the vital importance of getting the right feedback at the right moment. It can change the trajectory of your life and career. 

Ensuring you get the feedback you need requires real intention on your part. By starting with the tips I’ve offered today, you’ll be well on your way. 

And the side benefit is that as you practice these things, you’ll be role modeling for others, showing them the path to fuel their own growth as well. 

 

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My Birthday Wish for 2022
My Birthday Wish for 2022 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

It’s my birthday this weekend.

Everyone has a little different relationship with their birthday. Some embrace it and welcome the attention (thanks, Facebook). Others avoid mentioning it because it reminds them of another year gone and opportunities missed.

I’ve always enjoyed my birthday. As someone who is naturally extroverted, I’m sure the attention is part of it. But, as I’ve gotten older, I use the date as a checkpoint and reminder to pause, reflect, and proceed into the next year of my life with intention.

In recent years, I’ve also added some rituals to my birthday. One is to take a day off of work for self-care and reflection (good luck trying to reach me this Friday). Typically this includes heavy doses of art museums, coffee shops and my journal–not necessarily in that order.

It also includes writing this post.

Since we were young, we’ve been encouraged to make a wish when we blow out the candles on our favorite birthday pastry.

I don’t do a lot of wishing as a general rule. I’m more of a planner than a wisher.

But once a year, I allow myself to cast a wish out into the universe with hopes that it touches someone and perhaps changes something for them in a positive way.

My 2022 Wish

This year’s wish follows a common theme in my life recently–the pursuit of greater well-being.

My work over the past few years has been increasingly focused on teaching managers and organizations how to foster a greater well-being for employees.

Personally, I continue to experiment and learn how to protect and support my own well-being to increase my resilience and energy while avoiding future episodes of burnout.

The most important thing I learned in the past year regarding my own well-being is a lesson that seems so obvious. And yet, it is something that has always been so hard to practice.

I needed more sleep. So midway through last year, I started going to bed an hour earlier.

This changed my life in all sorts of positive ways. I feel physically better. My mind is clearer on a day-to-day basis. And, despite nothing really changing externally, my stress levels and emotional well-being have improved.

This shouldn’t have been a surprise. There’s volumes of research and data proving the importance of sleep to every part of our lives.

It’s had a real impact on me. And I know that it would be the same for nearly everyone else who’s not already getting enough sleep. It’s one of the few things in our life that most of us have a fair amount of control over.

Here it is, my birthday wish for this year.

I wish for everyone to find a way to get more sleep every day.

For many people, I’m sure this feels unattainable. It did for me too.

I had a lot of noise in my head about what time you “should” go to bed or get up in the morning.

Once I stopped “should-ing” all over myself, I realized that most days, I spent that last hour before going to bed staring at a television consuming content I didn’t really care about. That hour wasn’t adding any value to my life. It was actually the opposite.

So, I decided to skip it and just go to bed earlier. That’s when things changed. The closer I get to 8 hours of sleep in a night, the better the next day seems to go.

Everyone’s situation is different, and I’m sure it won’t be as simple for most people. Perhaps getting more sleep might mean sneaking a short nap in during the day rather than extending your nighttime routine.

When you let go of “should,” anything becomes more possible.

Let’s make 2022 a year of better well-being for everyone. And, let’s start with ourselves.

 

P.S. Block off a day on your calendar right now to celebrate your own birthday in your own way. You deserve it.

 

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Show trust in person's hands
The Simplest Way to Build Trust
The Simplest Way to Build Trust 1080 608 Jason Lauritsen

Few things have a more powerful effect on employee engagement and performance than trust.

Hopefully, I don’t have to convince you of the importance trust at work. We have thirty or forty years’ worth of research to demonstrate its importance (examples: here, here, and here).

Work is a relationship for the employee, and trust is vital to any healthy relationship. If you’ve ever been in a relationship where trust was broken or lacking, you understand this clearly.

So, we know trust is important, that’s not the issue.

The question is, “How do we build trust at work?” This is a particularly important question for managers and leaders.

There are a lot of answers to this question. In fact, entire books have been written on the topic, including my favorite, The Speed of Trust by Stephen M.R. Covey.

Throughout my experience over the past two decades, I’ve found that there’s one thing more than any other that you can do to quickly and effectively build trust with others.

It boils down to three words: Trust others first.

The Most Powerful Way to Build Trust

I have to attribute this insight most directly to my parents. Something about the way I was raised and how I observed my parents navigating the world allowed me to be generous with my trust in relationships.

This has been true throughout life, from being trusting of friends and romantic partners as I came of age to later trusting colleagues and business partners in my professional life.

It wasn’t really something I thought a lot about for many years. When I look back, I can see now that I’ve operated with a sort of mantra about how I approached relationships.

“I’ll trust you until you prove that you are untrustworthy.”

As I have reflected on my interactions with people throughout my life,  it’s surprising how few times I remember being burned or betrayed for trusting someone. Even when relationships went south and things got tense, we were still able to navigate our way through it because of a found of trust.

The unearned trust that I’ve invested in people throughout my life has almost always been repaid to me many times over with trustworthiness.

The bottom line: If you want to build deeper trust faster with your people, trust them more (without them needing to earn it). 

But you don’t have to take my word for it.

Why Trusting First Works

Science backs me up.

In psychology, research dating back to the late 1960s began to reveal the power of our expectation on others’ behavior. Two academic researchers, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson conducted research to isolate the impact of teacher expectations on student performance.

What they found was that when teachers expected more of students, regardless of their academic level or intelligence, the student outperformed the average (in some cases by 2x). They called this the Pygmalion Effect and published their findings in a book titled Pygmalion in the Classroom.

This effect has since been tested and studied in both military and workplace settings. What they all reveal is a powerful truth. Our expectations of others have an impact on how they behave, particularly where there’s a power differential in the relationship, such as teacher/student or manager/employee.

Said another way, as a manager and leader, people will tend to live up to or down to your expectations of them. So, if you want people to behave in a most trustworthy fashion, treat them as if you fully trust them.

The neuroscience research might be even more compelling.

Research by Paul Zak has revealed that biology is at play here as well. Through a series of experiments, he and his team have isolated the key role that oxytocin plays in our ability to trust others, particularly strangers.

They found that when someone demonstrates trust in you (even a total stranger), it boosts your oxytocin levels and makes you more likely to respond in a trustworthy way. Being trusted makes you more trustworthy. 

Here again, the research reveals to us that if you want people to behave in a more trustworthy way, trust them first.

Accelerate Trust Now

Embracing this concept can profoundly change your results as a manager. It can also transform your personal relationships.

And I know that if you’ve been burned in the past by a manager, employee, or significant other who betrayed your trust in a really hurtful or damaging way, this sounds easier said than done. But, don’t let one or two experiences in the past damage your ability to thrive and lead effectively in the future.

Use these simple reminders.

1. Trust first.

Don’t require people to earn your trust. When you do this, you send the signal that you don’t trust them. And they may very well prove you right as a result.

Instead, extend your trust generously and only take it away when someone has proven that they should not be trusted. This is particularly important for people with whom you work closely.

2. Tell people you trust them.

Particularly with people you manage or lead, tell them that you trust them. And then describe what that looks like.

For example, “I trust you get things done. When we discuss something, I assume you’ve got it under control and will make it happen. I know if you have questions or need help, you’ll reach out to me.”

3. Stop following up all the time.

This is where you’re likely to go awry if you’re not a naturally trusting person. If you are going to trust your people, then your behavior must not betray that intention.

The biggest mistake I see managers make (and I’ve been guilty of this many times) is following up with their direct reports to ask about project status or assignments. Typically, that sounds something like this, “How are you coming on that report? Need anything from me?”

While you may think that you are trying to show support and interest to the employee, put yourself in the employees’ shoes. What does that feel like to them?

Micromanagement.

And perhaps more significantly, it screams that while you said you trust them to get it done, that’s not really true, or you wouldn’t be asking about status.

Bet on Trust

If you have gotten this far and are still feeling a bit skeptical, I’m guessing that you work in a business or industry where people behave poorly frequently. I’m married to a politician, and her approach to trust has to be a bit more nuanced given the nature of her work.

Is it always right to trust every single person you meet fully? Probably not.

But if you hope to build any kind of meaningful or productive relationship with that person, then extending trust may be one of the most powerful things you can do to make that happen.

Give it a shot. Try being more trusting for the next 6 months and see what happens. I’m betting that you’ll be blown away.

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FORECAST 2022: What to expect and what to do about it
FORECAST 2022: What to expect and what to do about it 1080 608 Jason Lauritsen

What’s going to happen this year? That’s the million dollar question. 

There is no way to know for certain. The future is yet to be written and when we feel too certain that we know what’s going to happen, the universe has a way of reminding us that we aren’t in control. 

Today, I’m going to share with you what I expect from 2022 and what you might want to consider in terms of actions as you prepare for the journey ahead. 

Let’s dive in.

What to expect in 2022

There are so many trends and variables to consider when looking ahead to 2022. To keep this from turning into a book-length post, I’m going to focus on the two biggest factors that I believe will shape the year ahead for the world of work. 

Let’s start with the elephant in the room: the COVID pandemic. 

The best analysis I’ve seen recently on where we are trending is in a recent McKinsey article. The punchline is that there’s little evidence to suggest that things will improve over the next six months, but they could still get worse in terms of infection rates and hospitalizations related to COVID.  

There’s also no evidence that sea-change is coming among the anti-vax population in the U.S. to move the needle on vaccination rates. Plus, given the recent fumbling by the CDC in issuing updated guidance about how to respond to COVID exposures and infections, it’s unclear how much we’ve actually learned about how to beat this thing. 

Nothing right now suggests that this pandemic will be over any time soon. So, regardless of how “over it” we feel, we need to embrace that we are likely in for another year of pandemic adjusted life.

If you were hoping for a full return to office transition any time in the next six months, it’s highly unlikely that it’s going to happen. 

FORECAST: The pandemic will persist throughout 2022. The end is not in sight.

 

Just this week, new data came out showing that we set another record in November for quits in the U.S. This is adding fuel to the narrative that there’s a significant labor shortage. 

But is it a labor shortage or are we experiencing a long overdue adjustment? 

As you look a bit closer, the story behind what’s happening is interesting. For example, it appears that many of those resigning and leaving the workforce are baby boomers who are opting for early retirement or perhaps are just fed up with the current state of work. 

It’s not clear if too many of them have any interest in ever coming back to work.

There’s also a fair amount of evidence that people’s attitudes and beliefs about work are shifting pretty dramatically. Employees are starting to exercise greater agency and opting out of situations that aren’t working for them.  

For example, if you aren’t aware of the Reddit “antiwork” forum, you should read up on that now. It has grown from 150,000 to 1.4M users during the pandemic. I’m personally not sure it’s really anti-work, but rather anti the broken way we manage work today. Here’s the money quote from this article

“The most common issues that members raise on the sub, says rockcellist, are “stagnation of wages, overworking, being expected to be on call on and off the clock.” Overall, he says, “we see a lot of people in the sub who are just frustrated with the hierarchical structures at work and how they’re treated.”  

This sounds more like they are fed up with how they are being treated and valued at work, than being against work. They want something different and better and it’s hard to blame them.

When you combine this shift in employee sentiment with the tools of social media, it starts to feel like a movement.  

Have you heard of “QuitToks” yet? Give this a read. QuitTok is the name used to describe when people go to TikTok to publicly announce that they’ve quit their jobs. It’s a powerful look into how broken the work relationship is for employees from the employee perspective.  

Most people are referring to all of this as the Great Resignation. But, I think what’s happening is more of a Great Awakening. Ever since the success of Arab Spring and the role social media played in it, I’ve been expecting and predicting that a revolution was coming for work. 

It is only a matter of time before employees realize that if they claim their agency and unite using social media, they have the power to drive real systemic change for work. 

And even if the economy tips back in favor of employers, the attitude and perception shifts of employees is likely permanent. This is a wake up call for all employers. 

FORECAST: The Great Resignation and labor shortages persist through 2022.

FORECAST: Employee attitudes about work continue to shift towards demanding better pay, better treatment, and greater flexibility. Organizations that don’t adapt will suffer significant talent loss in the year(s) ahead.

 

How to Navigate the Road Ahead

Unfortunately, when you take these forecasts together, it essentially means that we are in for more of the same issues and challenges we’ve been dealing with over the past year. To make 2022 look fundamentally different, there is a big mindset shift we need to make. 

Our current reality IS the new normal.

Part of what’s making things challenging right now is that too many people are waiting. Waiting for the pandemic to be over. Waiting for this period of uncertainty to end. Waiting for everything to go back to how it was before. Waiting to get back to the office. 

The waiting is causing as much harm to work as the external disruptions that triggered the waiting in the first place. Waiting is fear in disguise. The time for waiting is over. A new future of work is upon us and this is our year to adapt to it.  

If you are ready to move forward to create an organization that will both attract and retain great people and one that offers an experience where they can do their best work, here are a few things that I’d recommend you focus on this year.

1. Abandon the debate about hybrid, remote, or onsite work. It’s the wrong discussion. Instead, invest your energy in redesigning work in an employee-centric way.

When I hear companies touting their new “hybrid” work policy where employees are working onsite for three days and home for two, It makes me sad because they are missing the opportunity of this moment. And I feel like they are missing the point.  

What employees have discovered during the pandemic is that they want flexibility. And not just flexibility, but flexible flexibility. They want to be able to shape their work experience around the needs and preferences of their life outside of work.  

While a two days at home and three days in the office policy might seem like a big step in the right direction to a traditionally 100% onsite company, it’s really just a different sort of inflexibility. What about the employee who really can’t effectively work from home? Or the employee who really benefits and makes their best contributions when working from home full time? 

What we should be doing is starting from scratch and completely rethinking and redesigning how we organize and manage work. My recommendation would be to use human well-being as a framework to start with. Here’s what that might look like.

This is no small feat. But at its essence, it means that we start with the question “What does the employee need to thrive at this task/role/job?” Reshaping work around what individual human beings need to thrive is challenging to do at scale and that will take time to facilitate.

But, there is a secret weapon you already have at your disposal to help you make progress right away. That brings me to my next recommendation.

2. Reskill, upskill, and liberate your managers. 

It’s time to face an uncomfortable reality. Most of our people management practices really weren’t working all that great back when the norm was being in the office together all the time. 

Now that people are distributed and employees have very different expectations about work, those old management practices are fully obsolete. If you haven’t been actively working to equip your managers for how to lead in this new era of work, they are likely struggling.  

As evidence, recent Gallup data shows that burnout for managers continues to increase. Managers are overdue for some support and guidance to help them find their footing in this disrupted new era of work. 

Managers are in the best position to facilitate flexible flexibility for their teams. But, it requires a new set of skills and tools than in the past. For one, it requires that managers are able to build a different kind of relationship with their people where conversations about well-being live at the center of it. This will require developing new competencies in relationship skills, communication, and compassion. 

In the past, management was about control and oversight. Those days are gone. The role of the manager moving forward is as a cultivator of human performance. This requires that a manager has the ability to identify the needs and obstacles of each individual so they can get each employee what they need to be at their best.  

This also means that the organization has to give managers more agency and trust to take action on behalf of their people. For example, in place of HR or Executive dictated policies for work schedules or office hours should be individual agreements made between manager and employee that might be adjusted on a weekly basis to balance the needs of the individual and the needs of the job. 

For this to succeed, managers need a new set of tools and skills for managing performance. Freedom and flexibility can only be optimized for the employee when there is crystal clarity about performance and behavioral expectations. This must be complimented by mutual and consistent accountability processes. 

To most quickly and effectively reshape the work experience to work better for employees, start with your managers. Your managers have the greatest ability to impact and shape employee experience. This is why I’ve gone all-in on management training and development in my own work.

3. Prioritize mental health right now (and forever more).

Back in September, I wrote about finish lines and how our obsession will finish lines is part of what is making the pandemic experience really challenging. In the U.S., we thought we’d crossed the pandemic finish line last July and yet, here we are. 

I think we are all struggling with this in our own ways. The prolonged periods of uncertainty, constant disruption, and perpetual change is taking a toll on all of us. 

We are “over it” and yet it persists.

After being overlooked and stigmatized for so long, employee mental health has been forced to the forefront in the past two years. Given what’s likely to unfold this year, this trend probably gets worse, perhaps much worse, before it gets better–unless we take bold action now. 

One of the things that worries me most about this issue is that we think we are making more progress than we are. There have been several surveys (like this one) over the past two years that reveal a big gap between how well executives feel they are doing in supporting employee mental health and how employees rate those same efforts. 

We aren’t doing enough. 

This isn’t just about providing counseling resources or improved health benefits. It’s also about the issues I’ve already described and designing work to support rather than diminish well-being.

It’s about ensuring workload isn’t excessive. And it’s also about ensuring the employees are connected and forming meaningful relationships through work.  

For more information and resources, you can find great resources at WELCOA and Workplace Strategies for Mental Health

2022 is an Opportunity

While my forecast probably doesn’t feel very optimistic to you, I’m actually pretty bullish about the year ahead. The pandemic has been awful in so many ways. But, the silver lining has certainly been the disruption it has caused to work. 

The longer we remain disrupted, the more dangerous it becomes to wait it out and cling to the old ways of doing things. My hopeful view is that 2022 is the year when we finally stop waiting and seize the opportunity to completely reinvent work. 

That may mean some short-term pain when it comes to employee turnover and recruiting. But the shifts that are underway will benefit all of us for decades to come. 

We must be bold enough to take advantage of this moment. 

2022 is the year of transformation. It’s the year that we stop waiting and step boldly into the future. 

I’m excited for the journey. I hope you are too.

***

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Top Employee Engagement Challenges for 2022 (and what do about them)
Top Employee Engagement Challenges for 2022 (and what do about them) 1080 608 Jason Lauritsen

A few weeks ago, I fielded a survey to inquire about the biggest employee engagement challenges for 2022. If you were one of those who took the time to respond, thank you.  

Selfishly, I created this survey because I wanted to check in and get an understanding of what people are anticipating as they head into the new year. There are a lot of likely challenges ahead of us and I wanted to hear what was top of mind for you. 

In a moment, I’ll outline the highlights from the responses. Before I do, a caveat or two. 

Please understand that this survey represents both a small sample size (just under 200 responses) and is a qualitative analysis of open-ended survey responses. So while I suspect that you will recognize many of these challenges as some of your own, I’m sure there are other significant challenges that this survey didn’t capture. 

My goal in today’s post is simply to share the general themes that emerged in this data and then suggest a few things you may want to be thinking about as we head into next year.

Survey says…

Here are the four most common challenges noted in the survey responses.  

1. Supporting shifting and flexible work arrangements (hybrid, WFH, etc.).

Many are still wrestling with how to equip their organization for a move to hybrid or remote-first work arrangements. Others are concerned about plans to return employees to the office given the wide range of employee opinions about where they want to work. 

Another side of this challenge that was mentioned is navigating the complexities and tension that exists when your workforce includes both employees who are working from home and those who are required to work onsite due to their specific job.

2. Keeping employees feeling connected to each other and the organization. 

This has been a common concern I’ve heard since the beginning of the pandemic. Particularly for those who are supporting a largely work-from-home employee base, the concern is that people don’t feel socially connected to others at work. 

The lack of ability to bring people together in-person was cited frequently as a cause of this concern. There was also a sense that the ability to connect was both contributing to and being caused by people being short on time, carrying a heavy workload, and burning out. 

3. Burnout

Another key concern noted was employee and manager burnout. In many of these comments, the implication is that the burnout is being caused by extended periods of heavy workload. 

Burnout is pervasive. Even many of those responding to the survey seemed to hint that they too may be struggling with it for the same reasons as everyone else. It’s clearly a big problem.

4. Pay

While some have argued over the years that pay is not an employee engagement issue, a significant number of those responding felt it may be an issue in the upcoming year. You’ll hear more about pay again in a moment. 

What’s driving turnover today

One question in the survey asked about the main reasons employees were leaving their organization today. As you’ll notice, the issues are similar albeit they showed up in a different order based on how commonly they were cited.

1. Pay

It probably shouldn’t be surprising that the main reason cited for current employee turnover is better pay elsewhere. We would probably have heard the same two years ago. The only thing I will note is that a few of the respondents who clearly support hourly front line employees shared that pay competition has definitely increased recently. 

2. Burnout and workload

Overworked and understaffed conditions seem prevalent. And it appears that these employees have just hit the end of their rope and decided they’ve had enough. 

3. Return to the office

A significant number of responses suggested they were losing people who were opting out of returning to the office in favor of finding a job that allowed more flexibility. Interestingly, there were also some responses suggesting that they were experiencing the opposite as well–employees who really wanted to return to working in an office because WFM wasn’t working for them.  

Are Managers and Leaders Ready for 2022?

The final thing the survey explored was the degree to which managers and leaders were ready to meet the challenges coming in the new year.  

The sentiments were mixed. Only about 5% felt that their managers are fully ready. Most had far less confidence. Nearly half of the respondents rated their managers as “barely ready” or “not ready at all.” 

When asked where managers needed the most development, a common theme emerged. Managers were viewed as having skill in managing processes, but there are significant gaps when it comes to managing people. 

These people management skill gaps include things like communication, appreciation, trust-building, and emotional intelligence. 

Some respondents speculated that perhaps the reason managers aren’t as focused on their people is that they too are burnt out and struggling to keep up with workload.  

In addition to these issues, there is also significant concern about managers being equipped to manage people in a hybrid environment with remote and work from home employees. 

What does this mean for 2022?

Given the current trends we are seeing around the world with virus mutations and vaccination rates, it’s probably wise to assume that 2022 may look a lot like 2021. As I wrote about earlier this year, part of what’s exhausting us right now is that we are clinging to the hope that a finish line to this pandemic is just around the corner. It’s not.  

In fact, the best thing we can do is accept that there is no finish line and embrace the uncertain and dynamic nature of the future. Once we let go of the finish line, it changes our entire perspective on this work. 

With that in mind and based on the themes that arose in the survey, here are a few things you may want to consider as you head into 2022.

1. Prioritize well-being.

Of all the challenges that surfaced, the most concerning is the prevalence of burnout. Burnout is an important issue, but it’s also the canary in the coal mine of deteriorating mental health at work. We can see and feel burnout in others. Depression, anxiety and other mental health issues are much easier to miss. A crisis of mental health is growing whether we can see it or not. 

The coming year is going to be stressful and full of uncertainty. Knowing that, we need to really get focused on supporting people’s individual well-being. This starts with you. 

As someone who carries the responsibility of shaping the employee experience of others, if you are not actively caring for your own well-being, you are operating on diminished capacity. Plus, it’s hard to do for others what you will not do for yourself. 

If people are struggling with mental, physical, emotional, or financial well-being, very little else you do next year will have much impact. Well-being has to come first.

2. Focus on enabling performance, not mandating how and where people work. 

Too many organizations are wrapped up in making definitive judgments about when and how they might be coming back to the office. Given that things are still unfolding and changing, this isn’t productive

Instead, 2022 should be a year of really digging in to get a deeper understanding of what your employees need to do their best work. This isn’t easy but it’s the right work. It requires gathering a lot of feedback and perspective about employee’s attitudes, experience, and perceptions. 

It also requires replacing hunches and assumptions with data on important questions. For example, how much does face to face collaboration drive performance in your organization? Or, why do employees seem to prefer working from home over coming into the office? 

Make 2022 about being relentlessly curious. Find ways to measure and design experiments to explore these questions and find real insights grounded in data and research.

As you get a better understanding of employee needs and what enables the best work to happen within your team or organization, design systems and processes to support that.

3. Play big and focus on what really matters.

We exist in a moment in time when the workplace is facing a reckoning. For decades, we’ve been muddling along with practices and policies that were designed for an industrial era of work that looks nothing like today. But we have lacked the motivation or courage to leave them behind. 

Then COVID showed up.

Today, we have what might be a once in a lifetime opportunity to completely reshape and reimagine work. We have been wholly disrupted and that has created an opportunity for systemic change. But, we must seize this opportunity now.

As you consider your work in 2022, what are the most important issues that need to be addressed to create a work experience that values employees and helps them thrive not just at work but also as humans?  This is where your energy should be focused.

The results of this survey reflected a lot of concerns about pay. Front-line hourly workers have been underpaid for decades. Pay equity remains an issue. And, now people are voting with their feet. 

What are you going to do about it?

Managers and leaders were underskilled before work changed. They too are burning out due to the immense pressure on them. 

How are you going to support them?

Now is not the time to aim at small progress. It is the time for bold action. 

It’s a time for throwing out the policy manual and starting from scratch. It’s a time to rethink everything about how people get managed, rewarded, and paid. 

It’s a time to question everything.  

The Time is Now

You might be thinking “my organization isn’t going to do anything about pay. They won’t even talk about it.” Or, “we’ve suggested management training, but our leaders are in denial that there’s a problem even as people are leaving.”

If so, here’s my question to you. Is this really where you want to invest your time and talent? 

Now is a good time to ask yourself some important questions. 

  • Do you believe that work can and should be a fulfilling and rewarding experience for people? 
  • Do you believe that it’s possible to create an experience of work that both drives performance for the organization and is enriching for the employee? 
  • Do you believe that a good business is one that can thrive and profit while also paying people at least a living wage? 

If you are like me, you answered each of these questions “Yes!” If so, then it may be time for you to move on. You deserve to work someplace that aligns with your beliefs and vision about what work should be. 

There are countless organizations today who have realized that they need to reinvent work at their organization. And they need people like you to help lead them there.

The same issues that are driving retention concerns about all of your employees are true for you as well. There have never been more opportunities available to talented, motivated people then there are today. 

Choose to do work that really matters. And if it’s time to move, get on with it.  

Seize the opportunity to shape the future of work. Play big at your organization. Raise the conversations that matter and do the work that will truly make an impact. 

The time for change is here. 

***

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Same storm, different boats
Same storm, different boats 1080 608 Jason Lauritsen

In March 2020, just as the pandemic was ramping up to wreak havoc on us, writer and broadcaster Damian Barr shared this short reflection on Twitter.

We are not all in the same boat.

We are all in the same storm.

Some are in superyachts.

Some have just the one oar.

It was an invitation to stop saying “we are all in the same boat” when talking about the challenges that were unfolding as we grappled with COVID. Depending on your life and work conditions, the experience was very different for different people.

The saying “same storm, different boats” resonated with people. And I think that’s because it pokes at a blind spot many of us have. In fact, I think this blind spot may be one of the biggest leadership challenges and one of the biggest leadership mistakes being made today.

The Blind Spot

The mistake I’m referencing is assuming that your experience is everyone’s experience–that everyone else has weathered the storm in the same boat you have. And this mistake is both easier to make and most costly for those who have had the luxury of being on the biggest, safest boats over the past few years.

To be clear, this isn’t a blind spot for those who have been clinging to an oar, trying not to drown over the past 18 months. When you are just trying to survive, it’s hard not to be acutely aware that many other people, particularly those with money and power, are in very different boats.

The reason this is so dangerous, particularly as we embark on the important work of defining what a new future of work will look like, is that the executives making the decisions are often the most prone to forget that their experience of work (and life) doesn’t even vaguely resemble that of most of the people for whom they are making the decisions.

I was reminded of this last week through a conversation with an executive. Due to the nature of their organization’s work, he told me that they had largely returned to working as they had pre-pandemic. He even described it as “being largely back to normal.”

Your Experience is not Everyone’s Experience

In the experience of many executives, the pandemic and the restrictions placed on where and how they could work was just a temporary inconvenience until things could get back to normal. They were on a big boat with loads of resources to see their way through the storm.

The experience for their employees with fewer resources and support was very likely very different. They had prolonged periods where they worried about their personal safety and security related to work as the pandemic unfolded.

They felt the crushing weight of uncertainty as they waited and wondered what would happen next. They worried about their job.

Their spouses may have lost jobs, which put a severe financial strain on the family.

They had to figure out how to manage their children’s schooling at home while figuring out where to “home office” simultaneously in an already cramped apartment or house.

On top of it all, some employees had to deal with scared and angry customers or patients, which made their jobs far more stressful and difficult than in the past.

I know that I’m speaking in broad generalities here. Not all executives had an easy experience and not all employees struggled or suffered through the pandemic.

That’s exactly the point. I don’t know what their experience (or yours) was like.

All I know for sure is that it wasn’t exactly like mine. And if I want to understand your experience and what you need or what might work best for you, that will require that I engage you in a conversation.

The news has been filled with companies who have had to reverse their decisions to return to the office based on pushback from employees because they didn’t take time to really understand what employees needed. One of the most publicized has been Apple. This is what happens when leaders forget that their job is to create a work experience that works best for their employees, not themselves.

A Mantra for the Path Forward

Same storm, different boats” is a profoundly relevant mantra for thinking about the experiences we’ve all had in the pandemic. But I think it’s bigger than that. This isn’t just about leadership at work or return to office policies, it’s about how we treat and think about each other in general as fellow human beings.

So much of the discord that’s happening broadly today in our society is fueled by this blind spot assumption that our experience is everyone’s experience. Until we can move beyond that assumption, we are bound to live in a world where we can’t seem to find common ground with others, particularly those living very different lives than we are.

If I can’t even see and acknowledge that you are in a different boat, then we can’t have a very productive conversation about the storm.

My own ability to do meaningful work was limited until I embraced that my experience living in this world as a cisgender straight white male is very different from those of other genders, races, sexual orientations, etc. I was born onto a much safer boat than many, and that’s part of my own privilege that affects how I experience the world around me.

Same storm, different boats.

Illuminating the Blind Spot

How can we avoid making this mistake? I think it’s pretty straightforward.

  1. Always begin with the assumption that every person’s experience is unique and different from yours.
  2. Get curious about how the experience of others is different from your own. Get educated. Ask questions. Listen deeply.
  3. Embrace that everyone’s experience is just as real and valid as yours.
  4. Acknowledge that what works for you might not work for others. In fact, what works for you might actually be doing harm to others.
  5. Commit to doing no harm.
  6. Proceed knowing that to create an experience that works for everyone requires their participation and shared agency in the experience.

People are complex. The world we live in is complex. We need to do a better job of both embracing and making room for all of that complexity.

The organizations that have thrived through the pandemic and will thrive well into the future have realized that the only way to create a work experience that works for everyone is to include the employee in the design process.

It’s not the easiest or fastest path, and it’s also likely to lead to places that may not be comfortable for some at the top of the org chart.

But it is truly the only way to get it right.

A Time for Thanks
A Time for Thanks 150 150 Jason Lauritsen
Why Now is the Perfect Time for an Employee Engagement Survey
Why Now is the Perfect Time for an Employee Engagement Survey 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Last week, I launched a survey to better understand what challenges leaders are anticipating during the next year related to employee engagement.

Some themes are emerging in the data. There’s concern about employee burnout. There’s a focus on how to keep remote and hybrid workers engaged. There’s also some worry about the impact of return to office plans.

All of these are valid concerns to have on the radar as we head towards what will assuredly be another year defined by uncertainty and change.

But I want to offer a word of caution, as you consider what you think will be your biggest employee engagement challenges in 2022, ask yourself this:

What evidence do I have that this is a real issue? 

Back in my days as an HR exec, there was nothing more frustrating than sitting in an executive meeting listening to a leader speculate about what employees wanted or how they were feeling with no real evidence to back it up beyond perhaps a single conversation they had with an employee or an article they read.

So many decisions that get made in organizations on behalf of employees are based on assumptions about what employees want or need. That often leads to actions taken and investments made with good intentions that end up having no effect or worse.

For example, it might be easy to assume that employees who work remotely are less engaged or more difficult to engage than those who work in the office. But, there’s a mounting body of research that suggests that may be the opposite. Our traditional physical workplaces might actually be a cause of disengagement for employees.

To make matters even more complicated, the degree to which working remotely engages or disengages an employee is going to vary from person to person. Their personality, personal living situation, past experiences, skills, and a host of other factors all play a role.

Here’s the harsh reality check. If you assume your employees as a whole are either more (or less) engaged by working remotely, either way, you are probably wrong. Or at least you are partially wrong and that can have real consequences on the decisions you make and programs you roll out.

Assumptions lead to frustration

So, do you have any evidence to support your specific concerns or conclusions about what you need to do to engage employees in 2022? If so, kudos. You are on the right path.

If not, I’ll echo what I said in an executive meeting once upon a time as the leaders around the table were speculating about what our employees needed from us.

“Why are we making assumptions about what they want? They are right out there. Let’s go ask them.”

As work is transforming in front of our eyes and shifting beneath our feet, it is affecting everyone differently. Some people are struggling while others are thriving.

We can’t make assumptions about what people need and how the experience is impacting them. It’s imperative to get real feedback on an ongoing basis if you hope to retain people through all of this change.

This is why NOW is the ideal time to be using employee engagement surveys to gather insights and evidence to inform your decisions and actions heading into next year.

A well-designed survey process will help you identify:

  • Who’s thriving and who’s struggling
  • Where you have systemic issues that might be driving turnover and performance issues
  • Where you have strengths and resources to leverage
  • Where you have significant risks and need to dig in further
  • What issues you can address immediately

This is only a partial list of why well-designed surveys are powerful. As a manager, survey results from your team are one of the best tools you can have to facilitate a meaningful conversation about each person’s experience and how to make it better (more on that later).

5 Keys to a Well-Designed Employee Engagement Survey Process

Notice that I didn’t just say “survey.” It needs to be well-designed and it needs to be part of a process that ensures that actions are taken based on what is learned. Below are key things you need to do to get it right.

1. A commitment and process for meaningful follow-up action.

The most important part of any survey is what happens with the results. Do they lead to change and impact that the employees can see or feel? It is vital that you have a documented process in place for how action will be taken on survey results BEFORE you even consider launching a survey.

Without follow-up actions from the survey results being visible to all employees, a survey will often do more to undermine trust and engagement than if you did no survey at all.

2. Use a survey with a validated measure of employee engagement.

Most, if not all, of the engagement survey products out there, will have a validated set of survey items they use to measure employee engagement. The company should be able to share with you (or you should be able to find it on their website) some documentation about how they measure engagement and the process they used to make sure it’s valid.

This is important because you need confidence in that measurement of engagement because you’ll want to use it as a filter and means of comparison to evaluate what groups are more engaged than others and what factors are either driving or diminishing engagement.

3. Be thoughtful about what questions you ask.

It is always tempting to use the off-the-shelf set of questions from any survey tool, but I’d caution against that, particularly now. Before even looking at the survey questions, you should go through a process to determine and document what questions you really want to answer through the survey.

For example, you might write down questions like:

  • Do people feel like we care about them? How do they know?
  • How/when/where do people prefer to work?
  • What are the biggest challenges people are facing right now in getting work done?
  • Where do we have the most risk or evidence of employee burnout?
  • How are people feeling about our return to office plans?

These aren’t meant as recommendations, just an example of what might end up on your list. With this documented, you can now start the process of designing your survey. As you evaluate the questions you ask, you can keep coming back to this list to ensure you are at least attempting to answer the most important questions.

4. Import as many demographics into your survey platform as you can.

Let me say this first, never do anonymous surveys. Ever. If your culture is so toxic that you can’t fathom a survey that’s not totally anonymous, you’ve got bigger problems than a survey can solve.

A confidential survey (which means that you assure the employees that their individual responses are treated as confidential) is just as effective in eliciting responses as an anonymous survey, but you end up with much better data.

With that said, when you set up your survey, import as many meaningful demographic characteristics as you can export from your HRIS system. Why? Because the more you set up, the more ways you’ll be able to sort and review your data.

Everything that describes an employee’s role should be included, such as department, location, job level, comp level, tenure, performance evaluation data, manager, etc.

If you are worried about the engagement of remote, hybrid, and onsite employees, this also needs to be included. If you don’t have that data in a field in your HRIS system, then add a question to your survey to get it from the employee.

You should also include all the personal demographics you can: gender, age, race, marital status, parental status, etc. Particularly now and given what’s happened in the world over the past 18 months, our unique work experiences may be more influenced by these factors than anything else. And that’s a story that is profoundly important for you to understand and address in the near term.

5. Get the results to the individual managers as quickly as possible (with some instructions and training on what to do with them).

I alluded to this earlier, but the place where the biggest immediate impact can happen as a result of any engagement survey is at the individual manager level. This is a lesson I learned firsthand as a manager nearly 20 years ago when my organization rolled out the Gallup Q12 process.

At the time, I didn’t even have a team big enough to warrant getting our own results, but I had been taught how to use the results at the HR team level to facilitate a conversation with my people about their engagement and experience. It was a game-changer for my team and me.

The survey results are a catalyst for management transformation. When a manager uses those results to sit down with their team and ask them to share their experiences and thoughts about how the team is doing well and could get better, things change.

It’s not enough to just give managers the results. Don’t make that mistake. They need guidance in making sense of the results, sharing the results with their team, facilitating a discussion with the team about the results, and leading some collaborative action planning with their team. Results plus support and training equals transformation.

Now is a perfect time for a survey

The best time for a survey is when you are most uncertain about what employees need or how they are doing. An engagement survey isn’t about optimizing an arbitrary number. It’s about gathering data to inform better decisions that impact employees so you can retain them and help them perform at their best.

Whether you have a team of 5 people or an organization of 25,000 that you support, a good survey done the right way is one of the most effective and efficient ways to improve performance and drive retention.

If you have specific questions about surveys and how to best use them, drop those in the comments and I’ll be happy to address those for you.

What I Learned at My First In-Person Conference in Two Years
What I Learned at My First In-Person Conference in Two Years 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Two weeks ago, the time had finally come for me to speak in-person at a large conference for the first time in a long time—nearly two years, in fact.

I’d known for months that this was coming, and I was really curious how it would feel to once again be face to face with both friends and strangers from all over the country.

In truth, this was actually my second time speaking in-person at an event since the start of the COVID pandemic, but the first one was a short in-and-out trip. It had been weird, but it all happened very quickly.

This one required spending several days in Las Vegas. And what better way to rip off the band aid of pandemic isolation than four days in Sin City?

I’m happy to report that it was a successful trip. It was a productive week, and I’m glad I went. But the experience could best be described as paradoxical.

It felt both very strange and familiar at the same time. It was great to see so many friends and acquaintances and reconnect with them, sharing hugs and handshakes again. But it was also uncomfortable and awkward being around so many strangers.

It was a learning experience for me. More than anything, it helped me better understand the complexity of our current times.

Below are a few reflections from my time in Vegas.

1. A little face-to-face time goes a long way.

My first few jobs, right out of college, included a number of roles where I was selling to people over the phone. I talked to some of my clients multiple times a week over the course of several months and even years.

I was able to meet a few of those clients face to face. It might just have been for a breakfast or a lunch meeting. Occasionally, it was for a more formal visit to their office. In every case, that short time we spent together in-person changed the dynamic of the relationship.

A little in-person time created a much stronger bond and accelerated trust. It felt like we really “knew” each other in a more meaningful way after we met. I was reminded of this power in Vegas as I met with new people and saw old friends.

It’s a big part of why we still feel compelled to come together for meetings and conferences. Being together allows for relationships to form and take root. It’s foundation building and fuel for our future interactions—which will likely not be in person as the pandemic continues.

I share this not just because it felt good to be with people again, but also because it’s an important thing to remember if you are trying to sort out what to do about bringing people back to the office.

Face to face time is important, but I think people sometimes misunderstand how and why. They wrongly think that you must be in the office together, all day, every day. Face-to-face matters most when it’s done with intention. Just showing up to the same physical place to work separately misses the mark.

If you want to help your remote or distributed team work better together moving forward, bring them together in-person periodically (when you can safely do so) and spend time getting to know one another and working together with intention. Then, when you go your separate ways again, you’ll be far better equipped to work together effectively, regardless of the distance.

2. Teachers are super-human.

I’m the child and grandchild of teachers. I grew up around teachers and have a profound respect and appreciation for how hard they work and the challenges of what they do.

That said, I had no idea how much harder things have been on them until speaking at a conference where everyone in the audience was wearing a mask.

Sidenote: another paradox of the week was that there is a mask mandate in place in Vegas. Everywhere you go indoors (casinos, shows, conference floors, etc.), 99% of people are masked. That, combined with the conference’s vaccine requirements, made the experience feel much safer than I expected.

I’ve often described speaking as being in a dance with the audience. There’s an energy and movement that happens during a presentation where the speaker and audience are giving each other signals. I make a joke, people laugh (hopefully). I tell a story about one of my kids, and people smile.

One of the biggest things I (and most of my speaker friends) have missed about speaking in-person is the energy you get from the audience when you are together in a room.

But masks change everything. You can’t see smiles. You can’t hear small laughs. It’s almost like the audience is seated behind a curtain. You know they are there, but you can’t feel them in the same way.

The presentation I did in Vegas was among the most challenging I’ve ever done. In fact, I remember thinking that it is easier to do a virtual presentation where I can’t see anyone on the other side of the screen than it is to have people seated in front of me who are hidden behind their masks.

I wish I could say that I fully understood how challenging our teachers had it over the past couple years, but this experience revealed that I had no idea. After speaking for just one hour in front of a room full of masked adults, I was exhausted. I have no idea how teachers do it for hours with masked children. It just reminded me again to be grateful for all the teachers. They are truly remarkable human beings.

This was also an empathy gut-check, another reminder not to assume you understand what others are going through and to extend as much compassion as you can to everyone you meet.

3. If you aren’t sure, ask.

One thing was clear pretty quickly: my social skills for the conference setting were rusty. Add on top of that the new complexities of how to greet people during a pandemic, and every interaction took on a new gravity.

Is it okay to shake hands? If not, how are you going to handle it when someone puts out their hand?

Are you willing to hug someone? If so, who qualifies for a hug and who doesn’t?

And how do you politely decline a hug or handshake without things getting weird?

Here’s what I learned. You need to know your boundaries. If you haven’t decided, then you are going to find yourself in some awkward situations. I decided that I am willing to shake hands in most situations (I’m also okay with hugging my friends). I can make a million arguments for why shaking hands is bad practice when it comes to hygiene and not spreading germs, but there’s something about the clasping of hands together that feels good. I enjoy the intimacy and connection of it. But that’s just my decision, not anyone else’s.

I decided that I would only shake a hand if it was presented to me first. I didn’t want to be the one forcing others into an interaction that felt unsafe.

What ultimately started playing out that seemed like the best practice was just to ask. “Are you shaking hands?” It gave the other person the opportunity to say, “how about a fist bump?” and still honor the invitation to connect without any weirdness.

But for me, the bigger lesson in this is to recognize that things have changed, and people are in different places. It’s going to take us a while to reshape our norms and hopefully, we will approach this with a desire to ensure everyone feels safe.

Things are different now.

As I’ve had the chance to reflect on the experience, the biggest take away was a reminder of how much has changed. No matter who or where you are, the events of the past year and a half have changed both you and your life in some significant ways.

But what those changes look like are very different for each individual person. And as we emerge from this experience and attempt to re-establish our lives, it’s going to be important that we do so with a great deal of care, empathy and understanding.

Some people will feel safe coming back to the office, while others will be terrified. Some will feel comfortable in face-to-face meetings, others will feel uncomfortable.

The key is to respect and engage each person where they are at to create a safe and meaningful path forward together.

What has your experience been like?

If you’ve recently attended a conference or participated in an activity you’ve had to avoid for the past year and a half, how did it go for you? What lessons did you take away?

Share your experience in the comments. I’d love to learn from you.