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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

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

Winter is Coming
Winter is Coming 1080 718 Jason Lauritsen

For those of you who aren’t Game of Thrones fans, this title probably seems silly to you. An observation like this certainly isn’t going to earn me a job as a meteorologist any time soon.

But, if you are a GoT fan, you know these three words represent a warning. When the words “winter is coming” are spoken in the fantasy world of GoT, the implication is that you’d better get ready because bad things are imminent.

These three words have been on my mind a lot lately.

This year has been brutal on so many fronts. No one has escaped its effects. Sure, the gravity and severity of the impact has not been evenly distributed, but everyone has been touched.

And I understand why so many people are ready for this year to be over; in a normal year, when we hit January 1, we get to push an imaginary reset button.

On January 1, everything feels possible (after your hangover passes, of course). We put the previous year behind us and look to the future with hope and possibility in our eyes.

This year, I’m going to learn to play the guitar.

This year, I’m going to lose 20 pounds and run a marathon.

This year, I’m going to spend more time with my kids.

This year, everything is going to get better.

But, we are not living in normal times.

Just a couple days ago, my daughter exclaimed, “I can’t wait for 2020 to be over.”

I’ve been hearing that a lot from people. And, it worries me.

My fear is that a lot of people are just trying to survive the year and hoping that when the new year arrives, everything will somehow get better.

Just make it to January 1 and things will get better.

I sure wish that was true. But, we know it’s not.

If we have the courage to look around us with eyes wide open, we can expect that as 2021 arrives, the pandemic may very likely be at its most devastating point globally, systemic racism and inequity will have gone nowhere and large groups of people will still resent the fact that it’s even talked about, and the economy is likely to feel uncertain at best.

A big chunk of the country will be trapped in their homes due to freezing weather, isolated from friends and family when they need them most. And, take it from someone who’s grown up in the Midwest—those first couple months of the year can feel LONG even in the best of times.

Depression and mental health struggles are going to be a primary concern for everyone.

The reality that we must face is that 2021—at least the first half of the year—may feel more challenging than any point in 2020.

I know, I know. Thanks for the uplifting post, Jason.

My point in writing this isn’t to depress you. It’s a call to arms. It’s a reminder that we need to prepare ourselves for what’s truly ahead (and not a pipe dream about a suddenly better 2021).

In Game of Thrones, the phrase “winter is coming” refers to an existential threat that would come from the north to devastate and destroy everything—literally. The main defense against this threat is “the wall,” which is literally a giant wall (think Hoover Dam) protected by armed guards.

The wall is the last line of defense between life as they know it and their demise.

Managers, owners, executives, and HR leaders—you are the wall. You have an obligation to see what’s coming and help equip your people to survive.

Succeeding in this task has vital consequences that reach far beyond helping people do their jobs. It’s about helping them stay whole and healthy so they can do the same for their friends, families, and neighbors.

It’s an awesome responsibility and opportunity to truly impact your people.

So, What Should You Do?

2021 is going to be hard but we can be ready. Hard experiences only break us when we aren’t prepared and lack support.

There are a few things you can start doing now to have a big impact on how next year goes for you and your team.

  1. Confront reality.
    Help your people prepare mentally for what’s coming by engaging in conversations with them where you help them understand what lies ahead. It doesn’t help you or them if they have a false sense of hope about how things will look come January. I’m not suggesting you be a radical pessimist or dream crusher, just that you talk about reality (using real data and trends) to help each person gain perspective that we aren’t anywhere near the finish line yet. In these conversations, reinforce that while it will be hard, you are in it together and will get through it together.
  2. Create a plan.
    Given that we have a pretty good idea of what the first half of next year is likely to look like, we can plan for it. And, more importantly, you can help your people plan for it. I find it most helpful to start with planning for the worst case scenario.For example, if we assume the pandemic will be worse by early 2021 and we’ll all be confined to our homes, schooling our kids from home, and unable to see the people we love outside our home in person, what are we going to do to make it through? What’s your plan for:

    • How to stay connected with friends, family, and co-workers
    • How to stay healthy and well?
    • How to keep your family/household/roommate situation positive and healthy?
    • How to maintain a balance between work and non-work time?

    Having a plan helps even challenging things feel manageable. And, the reason I like to plan for the worst is that the worst rarely happens, which means whatever does happen will feel a lot easier to navigate.

  3. Start talking about mental health now.
    There are already some alarming signals indicating that our mental health is suffering. Whether it’s anxiety, depression, burnout, or a host of other issues, caring for our mental health in the upcoming year is going to be a primary challenge we must face with our people.The most important thing you can do right now is start talking about it. By talking about it or even sharing your own struggles, you remove the stigma and make it easier for your people to share.Also, make sure your team has resources easily available should they need them. This could mean creating a one-pager with info about the company’s EAP program, helpline numbers, online resources, etc.
  4. Embrace the holidays.
    Encourage people to take time off, unplug, and enjoy some downtime in December. Make it clear you encourage this and create a plan with people to truly get away from work over the holidays as much as they can to rest, and recharge—whatever they need to feel somewhat restored. They will follow your lead on this, so do the same for yourself.

Winter is coming. And it is going to be challenging, particularly for those who are responsible for helping others find their way through it while keeping up their performance at work.

It is likely to be hard, but we can be prepared. Start now.

Your people need you, perhaps more today than ever before.

embracethesuck
Embrace the Suck
Embrace the Suck 700 468 Jason Lauritsen

Embrace the suck.

This is a familiar phrase for those who have served in the military. It’s a way to remind yourself or others that what you are doing is hard but important and that you need to keep going.

The difficulty and discomfort of the experience are a necessary part of the mission or process, so there’s no point in wasting energy complaining.

My oldest son, Dylan, served as a United States Marine. If you know a Marine, then you may have heard that boot camp is one of the most challenging experiences anyone can endure. It’s thirteen weeks of being pushed to your physical, mental, and emotional limits.

Dylan knew going in that it would be hard. He’d been given a lot of advice and guidance for how to best navigate the experience. Chief among that advice were those three words:

Embrace the suck.

Dylan didn’t enjoy boot camp, but he recognizes that “the suck” was a critically important part of shaping him into the Marine and the man who emerged on the other side of it. The struggle and unpleasantness shaped him in ways that will remain with him throughout his life.

I’ve been reflecting a lot on this lately.

In almost every conversation I have right now, at some point the topic turns to the uncertainty and challenges we are all facing as we try to make important decisions day to day in the face of tremendous uncertainty. There’s a lot of “suck” to go around.

We are being forced to give up, reconsider, and change so many things in our lives that it can feel pretty overwhelming. And it’s really unclear when it will end.

On my end, the middle of March represented a moment when much of the way I make my living was put on hold indefinitely. Conferences were cancelled or postponed. Corporate trainings were delayed. And given the economic turmoil since then, there was no easy way of replacing that work.

A whole lot of “suck” hit me overnight.

Out of necessity I started experimenting and doing things that I hadn’t done in the past. I’ve helped produce and host two online conferences since April. And I launched a new employee engagement online learning community.

These weren’t things that I’d intended to do this year. And all of this has been far more difficult than I expected. Like many of you, I’ve worked harder since March then I have in a long time, partly driven by anxiety about the future and partly due to the fact that so much of what I’m doing now is new to me and requires a lot of learning.

I share this because I suspect that it’s probably similar to your own story or experience. You’ve probably had to learn to work differently and support others who are doing the same. Maybe your organization’s business was disrupted like mine and you are trying to reinvent on the fly. Or maybe you work in healthcare where you face situations daily that were unthinkable only months ago.

So much “suck” is all around us. Discomfort and struggle have come to feel like the norm. This is where I keep coming back to those three words that helped Dylan get through boot camp.

Embrace the suck.

None of this is fun. I’ve not struggled and failed as much as I have recently in a long time. It doesn’t feel great. But that’s only part of the story. When I step back and try to see the bigger picture, there are a few things I keep reminding myself.

This won’t last forever.

Another piece of advice that my wife drilled into Dylan’s mind before he left for boot camp is also relevant right now. She told him that no matter how bad things got or how much he felt like he wanted to quit, to remember and repeat this phrase to yourself:

“This too shall pass.”

We are in the thick of it right now. These times are calling on everything we’ve got and everything we’ve learned along our journey to this point. We’re being pushed in ways that we’ve probably not been pushed in a long time. And while that doesn’t feel good in the moment, it is reshaping us.

It’s sort of like doing an intense full-body workout. It’s not very pleasant while it’s happening and it can be really tempting to just give up when it gets really hard. But then it’s finally over and you are relieved. And while you may be a little sore for a short time, the experience makes you better in ways you probably won’t recognize until later.

When we finally arrive at the other side of these current crazy times, we will emerge transformed. I’m betting that much of it will be for the better.

We are learning, growing, and getting stronger.

When we are faced with new challenges like those we are wrestling with today, we have no choice but to learn quickly. We ask new questions, we seek out new insights, we experiment to see what works. In other words, we develop our knowledge and skills at the pace of change because we have no other choice. I’ve had to do more focused learning in the past few months than in the past few years.

A lot of our learning is being forced upon us by external factors and changes. Some of it is also a response to our own failings. Regardless, when we learn, we grow. This push to learn and grow is like the resistance in our full-body workout. It doesn’t always feel good or comfortable, but it makes us stronger.

Progress is being made.

Just like with our workouts, it’s not always easy to see progress on a daily basis. The result of the “suck” of workouts only comes over time. I am confident that we are making some progress in ways we may not understand yet.

As I’ve talked with people over the past few months, I’ve been encouraged by the stories I’ve heard of leaders who have stepped up to communicate with their teams in ways they never have before. I’ve heard about innovative programs that have been rolled out to support employee’s well-being through the pandemic. And we’ve made a decade of progress on flexible work arrangements in just weeks.

There’s some evidence that engagement has actually improved during the pandemic. Josh Bersin highlighted this in a recent post you can read here. While this may seem strange given the historic levels of unemployment, I actually think it makes some sense. Many of the things I just mentioned align with what we know fuels engagement: communication, care about employee well-being, flexibility, etc. Plus, those who still have a job are likely to be a bit more grateful today given the current circumstances.

Despite all the discomfort, there is progress being made. And I am confident that much of this progress will be lasting–even once the virus has finally be defeated.

Embrace the suck. 

Things aren’t going to get comfortable or less uncertain in the foreseeable future. To get through it and emerge stronger, we need to lean into the discomfort and the stretch we are making to survive. Everything we experience and learn along this weird and unexpected journey will make us better and stronger in the long run.

Perhaps you and your teams can channel a bit of inspiration from those Marines who face down things far worse than this on a regular basis. Use their inspiration and strength to propel you to the other side.

I’ll meet you there. Stronger. And ready for a real vacation.

If you like this content, then you might really like my new online Engagement Leader Community. The work of engaging employees is getting harder. If you are wrestling with how to keep your employees engaged, happy, and productive during these crazy times, you will find some answers and support here. Check it out.

How to Shape the Future of Work NOW
How to Shape the Future of Work NOW 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

I’ve been struggling the past couple of weeks to write.

Every time I sit down in front of my keyboard, I feel conflicted. The range of issues facing people leaders and organizations varies so widely.

On one end of the spectrum are those employers whose primary challenge is supporting the employees who moved from an office environment to working from home. Their biggest issues revolve around supporting work from home, engaging remote employees, and maintaining culture in a virtual working environment.

At the other end of the spectrum are those organizations that employ those deemed “essential workers” in today’s world. Things are very different for those in this group. Issues of safety and wellbeing are paramount. While they may have a few people working from home, they have far more who are putting their health and lives on the line each day to show up to work. The problems of the first group of employers I mentioned sound like luxuries to them.

The day-to-day realities of these two groups are very different. What’s helpful to one group, sounds almost trivial to another.

So, I’ve been a bit more stuck than usual.

Then I realized there was one conversation I’ve been having over and over with people who work at organizations that exist in all areas of the spectrum. It’s a conversation about our opportunity to change the very nature of work through this moment in time.

I’ve heard people say things like “the rules are out the window” and “everything is being hacked.” These same people talk about how things under discussion for years, which would have taken months, if not years, to get done in the BC (before COVID-19) world, are now getting done in days or weeks.

Things that executives had always resisted and thought not possible are currently happening.

The common thread in all of these conversations is that a window for innovation has opened wide. How we work, when we work, what we do to support and care for those who do the work, and many other issues related to work have been completely disrupted. Those who lead and manage people are being confronted with challenges they’ve never encountered before.

New problems demand new solutions.

And while the future remains volatile and uncertain, one thing is sure: Normal as we knew it for work is gone. We can never go back to the way things were before. And why would we want to? For decades, employees have suffered through a status quo experience of work that was most commonly disengaging and unsatisfying. Why would we want to go back to that?

What lies before us, regardless of the challenges currently at hand, is an opportunity to completely rethink and reshape work in a way that serves everyone better: employee, manager, customer…everyone.

Normal as we knew it for work is gone.

But we need to move swiftly and with clear focus on what matters the most. From my seat, that means breaking and replacing inhumane processes with those designed for humans. We must take advantage of the open minds and lowered guards from those in power to usher in a new era of work that truly works for humans.

Here are a few thoughts and recommendations for where we can make the biggest impact.

The Role of the Manager

From its inception over a century ago, the role of management has been oriented toward control. Employers tasked managers with ensuring that the company was getting its money’s worth out of the dollars they paid to employees. Unfortunately, even as the nature of work has shifted dramatically over decades, the role of manager hasn’t moved with it. Historically, this has been a sticky problem. But things are different right now.

Never before have managers been forced to think about and care for employee wellbeing more than they do right now. If you manage essential employees, you have to be dialed into how safe or scared they feel at work. You have to pay close attention to how the stress is affecting them because it obviously impacts their performance. 

If you manage a newly remote team, avoiding conversations with your employees about how they are balancing their family obligations and other distractions could have significant consequences to both their work performance and commitment.

In this moment, managers must have a heightened awareness of the humans who are doing the work. Partly that’s because we are all experiencing our own human challenges. This is creating greater empathy. In addition, the consequences of not attending to these issues are highly visible. The role of the manager in today’s working world is to cultivate human performance. I write at length about this in my book, but the short version is that people have a natural inclination toward performance and growth. When we have what we need, and our paths are free of obstacles, we will find a way to succeed. 

Managers must have a heightened awareness of the humans who are doing the work.

A manager’s responsibility to her team is similar to the gardener’s responsibility to her garden: to ensure that those miraculous living things have what they need to thrive and promptly remove any obstacles that might get in their way.

The opportunity in this moment is to orient management practices around checking in with the human first. One powerful example is to redefine and structure manager checkins with employees. I wrote a post about how to do this a couple of weeks ago that you can reference for more detail. It’s also a great time to focus on the education of our managers and leaders about issues of wellbeing so that they can better provide support to employees as they need it.

Managing Performance

It’s no secret that performance management is broken. And it’s never been more clear that managing performance through a once per year appraisal is ridiculous at best. Given all the concern about maintaining performance while employees are either under duress, working remotely, or both, now is the time to introduce and bolster processes that are foundational to effectively managing performance. Start with the fundamentals.

Clearly Articulate and Regularly Calibrate Expectations 

Given how quickly things are evolving and changing right now, managers should be in an ongoing conversation with employees about expectations. Each employee needs to be crystal clear about not only where they should be focusing their effort right, but also what expectations exist about how they get their work done. The key to all of this is what I call the golden rule of performance planning: “If it matters, write it down.” These written expectations can then be validated and renewed on a weekly or monthly basis to ensure alignment and clarity.

Have Regular, Ongoing One-on-One Conversations

Managers holding one-on-one meetings with employees has always been important, but right now, it’s vital. When you don’t have the benefit of in-person drop-ins or hallway conversations, having a regularly scheduled forum to check in about performance is extremely important. Using a regular agenda of questions to guide the conversation is a powerful tool to ensure that this time is used in the most valuable way. Some examples:

  • What have you been most focused on since the last time we met?
  • What kinds of obstacles or challenges are you running into?
  • What can I do to best support you right now?
  • What are you planning to focus on over the next week/month?

Coach, Don’t Criticize

In every interaction with an employee, managers should be providing some appreciation. Everyone is adapting right now and doing their best. Finding ways to provide some acknowledgment of the effort into making this new reality work will go a long way. At the same time, be careful not to use feedback in a way that kills morale. Instead of criticizing an employee for something that may not have gone well or for a mistake that was made, try to think more like a coach. Talk with the employee to understand what happened and why they made the choices they did. Then, provide some recommendations and guidance on how to get a different outcome the next time they face that same situation. Orient coaching toward improving future performance rather than dissecting past mistakes.

If we can build these processes, approaches, and skills into how we manage performance through this moment in time, there’s a good chance these practices will become habit. They will inherently become part of how we manage going forward into whatever the “new normal” looks like in the future.

Unnecessary Policy and Practice

Given how suddenly the shift from in-person to a distributed, work-from-home work environment happened, many traditional rules and policies were relaxed or even overlooked to make it happen. The focus, by necessity, had to be on how to get the work done and how best to support employees through this transition. If you pay attention, you’ll notice that some things that used to get more attention and energy are now missing.

For example, how has expectations of dress code or working hours changed? How has the view on managing work time changed in the past two months?

Most organizations are rife with policies and practices that have no real value or purpose.

There are probably a host of ways that work is happening differently now than it was before this pandemic. The critical question to ask is “why?” Many of the policies that have gotten bent or broken in this transition may not have been needed in the first place. Most organizations are rife with policies and practices that have no real value or purpose. They were probably written into existence as a response to one bad experience (i.e., one employee showed up to work dress inappropriately, so we wrote a policy instead of dealing with the one person).

Use this time to seek out and identify the wasteful and unnecessary practices and policies that have been revealed. Pay attention not just to policy but also busywork (i.e., weekly reports that no one was actually looking at) and unwritten rules (i.e., leave your personality at home when you come to work). Now is the time to actively identify and destroy these things so as we create the new normal, it is free of this unnecessary and harmful baggage from the past.

Seize this Moment to Shape the Future of Work

While I wish the price wasn’t so tragically high, a powerful opportunity to change work for the better is at hand. For those of us who believe that work can and should be a fulfilling and nourishing experience for everyone who does it, this is a moment where we must take action. If you are a leader of people, then use this time to show what is possible. If you support those leaders, equip them with new tools to help them develop new habits and mindsets during this time.

What we do at this moment will shape work for the next decade. Let’s make it count.

 

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What Your Employees Need From You Right Now
What Your Employees Need From You Right Now 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

For the amount of talk and training and coaching we’ve deployed over the years about change, you’d think we would be better equipped when big changes show up.

Maybe nothing would have prepared us for the collective gut punch that we are all experiencing right now.

I know that I certainly got knocked off balance by this thing. It’s hard to find your balance when things are shifting so quickly and dramatically all around us.

As I’ve been talking with people this week, one of the common themes has been “how can I help people through this?” And this is a really important question—particularly for employers. Here’s why.

Unless you are completely isolating yourself from the news right now, it’s hard not to feel afraid of what’s coming—virus, economic downturn, etc., etc., etc. Good news is hard to come by.

There’s a lot of fear out there. I published a post earlier this week titled “I’m Scared Too” to share my own feelings about what was happening and to provide some guidance on how to step forward in spite of the fear. When I wrote that on Monday, I was pretty unsettled and my emotions were pretty raw.

I felt compelled to write about what I was feeling as a way to model what it looks like to put your emotions into words as a way to process and move through that emotion. My hope was that maybe it would nudge others to talk about their own feelings as well. Writing that post was healing for me and it helped me engage more fully with the new reality we are facing.

The reaction to my post was interesting and informative to me. There was one thing that really stood out in the reactions I received.

We have a complicated relationship with fear.

Some people I heard from were grateful that I had talked about my own fear as it helped validate how they were feeling.

Others, mainly my friends, reached out with a message: “Are you okay?” For those who are concerned, yes, I am very okay. I didn’t realize that admitting my fear would trigger this reaction. It feels good to know that people care. These messages also hinted at something else I noticed this week.

There are a lot of us, particularly the dreamers and entrepreneurs and “change the world” types, who have adopted a belief that fear is a bad or toxic emotion. I even have a plate displayed in my office (that I painted) that says “No Fear.”

To illustrate what I mean, I’ll share that one friend, after reading my post, said to me these two things: “Fear is the worst response” and “fear keeps us from living.”

It came from a good place, but I think it’s dangerous to talk about fear like this—especially right now. The “no fear” culture isn’t about fear, it’s about courage. And we need to be very careful with our language right now.

According to a Smithsonian Magazine article about the brain’s reaction to fear, fear “is a fundamental, deeply wired reaction, evolved over the history of biology, to protect organisms against perceived threat to their integrity or existence.”

It’s a natural human response that’s meant to help ensure our safety and survival. Fear isn’t good or bad. Telling someone not to feel fear isn’t helpful. What we need not isn’t an absence of fear, but rather an abundace of courage.

“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it. The brave man is not he who does not feel afraid, but he who conquers that fear.”—Nelson Mandela

Acknowledging our fear is okay. In some cases, you must acknowledge it as a way to move past it. To move past it, we need to feel a sense of control.

Back to the Smithsonian article: “That perception of control is vital to how we experience and respond to fear. When we overcome the initial ‘fight or flight’ rush, we are often left feeling satisfied, reassured of our safety, and more confident in our ability to confront the things that initially scared us.”

Once I wrote and published my blog post on Monday, I went to work on planning for two things:

  1. The safety and health of my family.
  2. The sustainability of my business.

This has involved some reading and education; conversations with my family, friends, and colleagues; and writing down some plans. The future is uncertain and that feels scary, but through these steps, I’ve found my way to a greater sense of stability and wholeness in the past four days. The fear isn’t gone, but I’m managing my way through and past it by taking purposeful steps forward, controlling the things I can.

My Advice to Leaders Right Now

As leaders of people, managing through the fear is our most important task right now. People are uncertain and afraid. Start with acknowledging the fear and validating that it’s natural to feel that way. This starts with you.

If you feel stuck or paralyzed right now, uncertain what to do next, that’s likely the fear. Being afraid is okay, but we can’t stay here. People depend on us, so we have to find the right next step. And don’t worry; there is no perfect next step. This is new territory. Do the best can, erring on the side of caring for yourself and your people. If you make a mistake, just back up a step and try something else. That forward momentum will help alleviate the fear. I promise.

The main thing right now is to find ways to help create a sense of control for your people. Give them agency in this experience so that they too can feel that sense of forward momentum that moves us out of and past the fear.

Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  1. Communicate and educate like it’s your job (it is actually). Don’t assume what people do or don’t know—whether that’s about the virus, prevention strategies, how to work remotely, how to maintain social distance, etiquette for video meetings… Things are moving and changing so fast that I’m sure you are overwhelmed. Imagine how your people feel as they are even further removed from the decision-makers. You literally cannot over-communicate in times like these. When city and state leaders are holding daily press conferences to keep the general public updated, your frequency of communication needs to be even higher than that. Consider daily team meetings, daily one-on-one check-ins, regular email updates/briefings on anything that’s new or changing, etc.
  2. Recalibrate performance expectations. As we shift to work from home or different operation schedules, it’s time to step back and focus on what matters the most right now. Things that may have seemed important two weeks ago may not matter as much today. Spend time with your people to talk through their performance objectives and projects. Identify what is critical now, what is less important, and what can be put on hold for the time being. Also discuss and clarify behavioral and communication expectations. For example, in a remote working environment, how are we going to communicate? What kind of response time expectation should have of one another? As an example, with my teams in the past, we’d agree that email is for things that need a response in one or two days, instant messaging (like Slack) is for a quick question, and text is for things that need urgent response. The more clear you are in expectations, the easier the transition will be.
  3. Allow maximum flexibility (and grace). In this unprecedented time, people are trying to juggle things they’ve never encountered before. Kids are out of school, and  for some, there is an expectation of parents to “homeschool.” People who never have before are working from home. Self-quarantine has us isolating from family and friends. Our routines and lives have been disrupted in more ways than we can count, and it happened overnight. As leaders, we need to help people find their footing and establish a new normal. This is going to require learning how to manage a work/life mashup that most never wanted and didn’t choose. Now is the time to both allow and encourage as much flexibility as possible in terms of both how and when work gets done. Provide tools, resources, and support to people as they navigate this. And, perhaps most important, extend grace to your people. Help them understand what the mission-critical work is that must get completed, and then allow them some wiggle room to sort out their life. Be generous and forgiving. Now is not the time to be worried about how many hours people are working. Just ensure that the critical work gets done over the next few weeks. Then, you can begin to craft the new normal.
  4. Make wellbeing a part of everyone’s job. In stressful times, it’s easy to stop doing the things that help us stay well and healthy. We eat and drink more, we sleep less, we stop exercising (no time!), etc. On top of that, social distancing means we are likely to start feeling more isolated and disconnected. In a health crisis, allowing your wellness to suffer is perhaps the worst thing you can do. We can make ourselves less vulnerable to illness by investing time in our wellbeing. But your people may not feel like they can allow themselves time for wellbeing activities unless you make it part of their job. Give them instruction to set aside at least 30 to 60 minutes a day for some kind of physical or mindfulness activity. Encourage them to schedule a 30-minute check-in with a colleague or friend at least a few times a week. (My wife and I have started scheduling virtual happy hours with friends.) Investing a couple of hours a week to support the wellbeing of people is an investment in the quality of all of the other hours of the week.

Use the fear as a wake-up call. To emerge from this crisis as whole as possible, we need to take action now to help our people through it. Fear isn’t the problem; it’s a signal that action is required.

When this is all over and the pandemic has passed, people will remember how their organizations and leaders showed up. Did you prioritize their safety and wellbeing, even when it wasn’t easy for you? Or did you wait, leaving them in their fear not sure what to do next?

Those companies and leaders who step up now will emerge from this crisis stronger and with more loyal, committed employees than ever before.

Go now. Your people need you.

 

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I’m Scared Too
I’m Scared Too 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Last Monday morning, I sat across the breakfast table from a friend talking about how the media was creating panic over the coronavirus.

Early last week, I kept saying things like “I’m glad I don’t get a breaking news update every time someone dies of the flu or cancer like I do for this virus.”

That feels like a lifetime ago.

That same friend is now in self-quarantine due to possible exposure last week.

Looking back now, I’m embarrassed about how ill-informed and short-sighted I was. I was wrong. I should have been paying closer attention to what was happening in China and Italy. Hindsight….

As I tried to educate myself about what was happening and others smarter than I am helped to educate me early last week, the severity and dire nature of what was coming became clear. This is dangerous and it’s not like anything we’ve seen before.

We are still at the beginning. It’s going to get worse. Much worse.

And I’m willing to admit that I’m scared.

Over the past week, it’s been interesting and troubling to watch our behavior as this has unfolded. Most of us have never lived through anything like this, and no one seems to be prepared.

Like me, most people seem to start with some form of denial. “This isn’t that big of a deal.” We blame the media for creating panic. But they were doing their best with an unbelievable story. This isn’t their fault. And those early warning bells are likely to look pretty justified before this is all over.

While it seems that many people are starting to come around to the gravity of what’s happening, it scares me how many people still seem to be in denial, particularly some of our more irresponsible leaders. This is real, and it’s happening at breakneck speed.

If you are paying attention to the news as it unfolds, it’s hard not to feel some anxiety.

I’m worried about the threat this virus poses to our elderly and immune-compromised population. Selfishly, I’m worried about my parents and grandparents. I’m also worried about your parents and grandparents and anyone else at the highest risk.

I’m worried about how this is going to impact people who depend on the ability to go to work every day to early their hourly wage. When those businesses close or the schools close, and they have to stay home with kids, they can’t earn money to pay their bills.

I’m worried about the kids who don’t have a safe place to go during the day because schools are closed. And the kids who depend on the school to get at least two meals a day.

I’m worried about how this will impact my business and the businesses of so many others.

Yes, I’m scared. You might be too.  It’s okay to feel scared. And it’s important that we acknowledge and talk about it so it doesn’t consume us. By acknowledging our emotions, we can take positive steps to ensure that we are caring for ourselves and those around us appropriately.

Angie and I spent most of the weekend talking about what this means for us and for our community. We started putting a plan together for our family. We talked a lot about how we can help and lead in these crazy times.

Many of you are in positions of influence and leadership within your organization. Others are looking to you right now for leadership and guidance. They are uncertain and scared, and they don’t know what to do.

You’re probably facing some really challenging decisions in both your organization and your life. While I don’t have any special insights into how to navigate through a pandemic, there are a few things I’d like to offer up here that might be helpful as we work through these uncertain times. I am reminding myself of these same things right now.

  1. Focus on self-care. We can’t care for others if we aren’t taking care of ourselves. Get some sleep, get some exercise, pay attention to what you are eating and drinking, meditate if that’s your thing. To lead ourselves, our families, organizations, and communities through this uncertain time, we need to be strong. Healthy bodies are also more resilient bodies when it comes to illness.
  2. Educate yourself. Knowing more about this pandemic won’t likely make you feel better about what’s coming. But as long as you use sources like the CDC, Johns Hopkins, and reputable news outlets, you’ll at least have a foundation of information on which to make decisions.
  3. Up the communication, by A LOT. Over my entire career studying employee engagement, there is one common theme. We don’t communicate as often or as well as employees need. And this is during good times. In crisis and times of great uncertainty, your people need open communication with you more than ever. Unfortunately, our instinct during times like these is to slow down, create more formal communication, and make sure the message is “right” (whatever that means). Yes, it’s important you spend time thinking about what and how you communicate in times like this but also realize that minutes and hours matter. People don’t always need you to know the answer, but they want to know that you are thinking about them, you will keep them updated, and you are on top of what’s happening. Consider your own experience. Would you rather hear “We don’t know all the answers, but here’s what we do know” or silence? Silence in times of uncertainty fosters fear and further uncertainty. Just remember that when we know what’s going on, we tend to assume the worst. Yhe moral of the story is this: Whatever amount of communication you are doing with your team right now, multiply it by four or more. No one is going to get angry with you for over-communicating.
  4. Maintain connection.  Social distancing and isolation are going to be the new norm for a while. We need to remember that we all have a fundamental need for human connection, so as we are removed from the places where this happens naturally like the workplace, we need to replace it somehow. Google Hangouts and Skype provide video resources for free so long as you have an internet connection. Set aside time each day for calls, texts, video chats, or however you prefer to communicate. You also need to consider this for every member of your team or employee. How are you going to keep your people connected if you send them home or have to shut down?
  5. Just take the next step. There is no playbook or best practice for what’s happening right now. That can lead to paralysis of what to do for your organization or family. The thing is, you don’t need to have the whole plan worked out to do the next right thing. Do you send people home to work or not? Do you close your business or not? Do you keep your kids home from school if they haven’t closed? Make the best decision for today or this week based on what you know right now. But also realize that things are changing fast and as you get more info, a different decision might be warranted.
  6. Think about community. Much of the anxiety I’ve felt over the past few days has as much to do with my concern about the broader impact of this pandemic on our community as it does on our family. If we are to minimize the damage of this unfolding crisis, it requires that we all think beyond ourselves. The choices we make today will have important ripple effects on how life looks for us all over the next few months. As you contemplate what you do individually or with your team, try to consider all of those who might be impacted.

It’s important that we lean on and support one another as we navigate these uncertain times. Talking things through is important and helpful. If you want to talk or would like help thinking through some decisions you need to make, reach out and I’ll make time for you.

We are in this together. And we’ll get through it together.

 

Here are some resources that I’ve found helpful over the past few days:

 

Are You an Employee Engagement Dinosaur?
Are You an Employee Engagement Dinosaur? 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

This week, I somehow found myself in a conversation with a colleague about breaking the habit of putting two spaces behind a period when I type. Since he is roughly my age, he understood this challenge completely.

For some of you reading this, the idea of putting two periods beyond a sentence when you type sounds completely ridiculous (who would ever think that’s a good idea?). For others, this may be the first time you’re being confronted with the fact that you are doing it wrong.

I’m not here to argue over the right number of spaces behind a sentence; that has been decided. It’s one.

But, as we talked, I referred to myself as a dinosaur for using two spaces. Granted, I am a dinosaur in recovery (notice the single spaces in my post today…), but that left me pondering something else.

Employee engagement is a concept that we’ve been wrestling with for about 30 years now. And we know a lot of stuff today that we didn’t when we first started. Which begs the question: What are our “two spaces after a sentence” ideas in employee engagement? What beliefs or practices are we stuck in or do we defend, that just aren’t relevant or effective given what we know today?

I think there’s a few. So, I’ve thrown together a shortlist for you. If you recognize yourself in any of these, it’s time to rethink your position.

Signs You May Be an Employee Engagement Dinosaur

1. You think that employee engagement has to involve a survey

Employee engagement was created as a concept to help us measure and understand the human factors in the workplace that are hard to isolate but have profound effects on how we perform at work. The most efficient and effective way to measure engagement has historically been an employee survey. The survey results gave us something concrete to work with as we try to understand something as abstract as human behavior and emotions. As a result, an entire market of employee survey providers emerged to offer tools, expertise, and consulting to help employers survey their employees.

This practice has become so common that many have come to assume that to work with employee engagement has to involve a survey. The reality is that while a survey can be an effective tool for measuring employee engagement, doing the work of employee engagement isn’t about a survey. Instead, it is about creating an environment and experience of work each day that fosters individual performance. It’s about management practices and technology. It’s about culture and work processes.

It’s about far more than a survey. And if we are to make progress, we have to approach it far more broadly and proactively.

2. You think that HR “owns” employee engagement.

If you are spending any time trying to decide who “owns” employee engagement, you might be a dinosaur. This is a wildly unproductive and unhelpful debate and discussion. Every experience an employee has with and through work has the potential to affect their level of engagement. No one singularly owns employee engagement and everyone plays a role in it. When we say that HR or Corporate Communications owns engagement, it sends an unintended message that no one else needs worry about it.

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be people or departments who will play specific roles related to employee engagement. HR might have the responsibility for measuring engagement or providing training.  Executives may (should) have the role of setting a strategy and expectations for employee engagement. But everyone should understand that they have some role to play in both their own and others’ experience of work.

3. You believe there is one right way to approach or create employee engagement.

This is perhaps the most vivid example of “two spaces after a period” thinking about employee engagement that I commonly encounter. Executive leaders and consultants are particularly prone to this way of thinking. It’s fueled by a variety of mental biases but most potently the halo effect and the fundamental attribution error. Here’s how it happens.

We work at an organization where we are involved in creating or bringing to bear some kind of solution related to employee engagement. Maybe it’s implementing the Gallup Q12 survey or it’s implementing a particular management training program. Sometime following the implementation, the results of the organization improve or something else positive happens. We take this as indisputable evidence that our solution was effective and become convinced that it would work elsewhere. This is best practice thinking.

The problem, of course, is that it’s really hard to isolate the impact of specific programs or know exactly what caused the positive outcome. In addition, what works in one culture or context, doesn’t necessarily work in another. I’ve seen the same approach appear to be really effective in one company and fail in another. We have to recognize that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to engagement.

If you are feeling like you might be a dinosaur, it’s okay. You can still make some progress. It’s never too late to shift your thinking and approach. Despite almost 40 years of putting two spaces after a sentence when I typed, I’m actually getting pretty good at only using one. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s possible. We can all catch up.

 

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Belonging Is an Act of Courage
Belonging Is an Act of Courage 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Where in your life do you feel a real sense of belonging?

That question on the surface feels like a pretty simple question to answer. And it’s easy to assume that almost anyone you ask would have an answer to this question.

Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time with this question, and I now realize that it’s far more complicated than I thought.

Belonging is a concept that is increasingly sneaking into our conversations about employee experience and well-being in the workplace. It has its roots in psychology. It’s one of those concepts, like many we use when talking about the human experience, that isn’t particularly well defined or understood yet.

And yet, it’s a concept that has deep emotional significance for most people. We may not be able to describe exactly what it is, but we know the experience when it happens. It’s the kind of experience we want more of, as much as we can get, but it’s often as hard to find as it is to define.

Part of the reason that belonging has such resonance with us is likely because the absence of belonging can be so painful. Let me offer you another question to ponder.

When was the last time you felt excluded, particularly when your desire to belong was strong?

Sadly, it’s far easier to think of answers to this question than the first. I’ve become convinced that we are facing a crisis of belonging, not just at work, but across our society. We are starved for and craving a deeper sense of belonging. And it’s not just one particular group or segment of people who are feeling this.

Two Major Insights Into Belonging

I have facilitated two separate retreats this year where we exploration belonging in an attempt to understand it more fully. I’ve come away from that work with two major insights.

First, we need to dive much deeper into belonging to understand what it is, how it works, and how we can foster it in all areas of our lives.

There has been some work done in this regard, but there’s much left to do. As I’ve explored this with colleagues and friends this year, questions emerge that highlight our need for a deeper understanding of this concept. For example:

  • Can you only belong to another person or group?  Or can you also belong to a place or experience?
  • Can you belong to yourself? If so, what exactly does that mean?
  • What role does belonging to or accepting one’s self play in the ability to belong to others?
  • Are belonging and exclusion opposites?
  • Can belonging exist in a group without some degree of exclusion? In other words, is exclusion a necessary ingredient to belonging?

These are not easy questions when you start putting them into actual application in your life or at work. And yet, they are questions we need to wrestle with until we find answers.

My second insight is that belonging is an act of courage.

While there are a lot of definitions out there for belonging, here’s how I’m defining belonging today based on both my experience and reading: Belonging is a feeling of unconditional acceptance.

Belonging is a feeling of unconditional acceptance. 

The place where I feel the greatest sense of belonging is in my marriage. Angie accepts me fully through our entire range of experiences together—when I’m at my best, and more importantly when I’m at my worst. It’s a rare and unique experience that has been incredibly powerful and important in shaping the quality of my life.

I think this definition also works when we talk about belonging to ourselves. The work of unconditionally accepting who we are is not easy and it’s a lifetime of work. I usually describe this as our journey to authenticity.

The real magic of belonging happens when we both belong to ourselves (i.e., we are fully authentic) and we belong to others simultaneously.

There Is a Catch to Belonging

But here’s the catch: To have the opportunity to experience belonging requires that you reveal yourself fully. It requires vulnerability, and as a consequence, it is an act of courage. This is true for both the individual and the group.

Belonging requires vulnerability, and as a consequence, it is an act of courage.

As an individual, to be unconditionally accepted as we are requires that we reveal who we are. The danger is that you can’t be fully accepted before you are fully revealed. It requires a leap of faith, an act of courage, before you can receive the reward. And the reward is not guaranteed.

If you are part of a team of mostly Christians, revealing you are Muslim or atheist might be met with acceptance but it also may not. The same could be true for being liberal in a conservative company. Any time, you reveal something about yourself that feels unique or different, there will be a risk. Even when you are pretty certain the group will accept you regardless of these things, it’s still a risk when you fully reveal yourself.

Belonging to yourself truly is perhaps one of the hardest and bravest acts there is because we live in a world that sends you signals all day every day that you are somehow not enough.

And when you unconditionally accept someone else, it also involves risk and vulnerability. What if they don’t accept you back? What if their beliefs are completely different than yours? What if who they are fundamentally conflicts with who you are? These are not easy circumstances to navigate, and they make the act of acceptance far more challenging. Extending belonging to others requires courage.

This insight that belonging is an act of courage helped me understand why the work of creating belonging is both so challenging and so important. The irony is that, as in most cases, the courage required is repaid a hundred times over in most cases. But, we’ve got to take that step.

The work of creating belonging is both so challenging and so important.

Here are my requests of you:

  • Experiment with revealing more of yourself to others as a way to explore and understand how belonging works.
  • Ask the people in your life about their experiences of belonging and exclusion and how it affected them.
  • Work on ways that you can extend a more unconditional acceptance to those who you live and work with.

We can be the solution to this belonging crisis together. We just have to muster the courage to do it.

 

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Why Work Still Sucks (and Organizational Change Is SLOW)
Why Work Still Sucks (and Organizational Change Is SLOW) 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

We’ve been working on making work suck less for quite a while now.

Gallup has been measuring employee engagement for nearly 30 years and the results have always been terrible. Most employees are not fully engaged at work.

In other words, work isn’t working very well for the people doing it.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some organizations out there who have figured it out. They’ve redesigned work in a way that the humans love and are reaping the rewards. These are rare examples and proof of what’s possible.

We also have more research and science available to us today than ever before to help us understand people–how we are motivated and how our brains work, etc. In other words, with all this data, creating environments that are optimized for humans should be less mysterious and challenging.

And yet, we are still struggling just as mightily as we have for the past few decades. This riddle is one that I’ve pondered for a long time and while I’d love to tell you I have the answer to breaking through and being one of those rare examples, it’s not that simple.

I do, however, think I can point to one reason that this change is happening so slowly.

Let me take a step back for a moment. If you’ve been working with employee engagement for very long, you’ve probably debated–or at least thought about–whether it’s possible to take a disengaged culture and change it to an engaged culture without a change of leadership at the top.

Most of the stories we hear about an “epic culture change” start with a change of CEO. The old CEO didn’t get it, the new CEO does. And thus marks the beginning of the culture transformation for the organization.

Rarely do you hear a story about leaders who didn’t get it, but after some really compelling meetings with HR, they turned it around and became that leader who can spark a different kind of culture. I’m sure there are some examples of this happening, but it seems to be rare in my experience.

Leaders Lose Sight of How They Could Change the System

This leads me to an observation I’ve made throughout my career that I find particularly challenging.

Leaders struggle with breaking the system that gives them power, even when they know the system is bad.

It’s not an uncommon story to observe people changing as they rise up higher on the organizational chart. When they were a “high potential” new hire, they probably saw all sorts of issues in the system. They had pages of ideas for how leaders could show up differently and behave differently to make their work experience and their team’s work experience more rewarding.

But with every promotion, that individual moves farther and farther away from that employee perspective they once had. Every new title comes with a bigger paycheck, better perks, and more access to those with the real power.

Over time, that person grows accustomed to the role of the organization leader with all of its associated fringe benefits. The advice coming their way from those who grant the power at the top of the org chart begins to drown out those old ideas rooted in their own experience of leadership.

They become part of the organizational machine. And partially, that’s because there is so much at stake: big title, big paycheck, big office. All created by a system that they know isn’t working the best for most employees.

And so they find themselves, perpetuating the very behaviors and systems that they may have once railed against. It’s a cycle I’ve personally seen play out over and over again.

So what does it take to break out of this common pattern? It takes a rare and courageous leader to climb to the top of the ladder and then go about breaking apart the very ladder they are perched atop. That ladder is what affords them the power in the first place.

Willingness to break or fundamentally challenge the system that gives you power requires true vision, fortitude, and principle. It’s rare because the risks, or at least the perceived risks, are very high.

As I write this, I realize that this is a bit depressing. The system is designed in such a way that there are powerful incentives NOT to change, so what do we do?

There Are No Easy Answers to Slow Organizational Change

I don’t think there are easy answers to this issue. But, here are a few things I’ve learned:

  1. If you have a CEO who gets the importance of engagement and culture, you are incredibly fortunate. Do not squander the opportunity by playing small with small ideas. When you have the CEO as your back, you can accomplish some amazing things for both your employees and your organization.
  2. There is one exception to the rule that leaders won’t break the system that gives them power. That exception is a crisis. When the organization is facing a crisis, leaders’ minds open to alternate paths. If the status quo leads to extinction, then change is required. When your organization finds itself in crisis, step forward with bold plans. This may be your moment to truly change the trajectory of the organization.
  3. Don’t lose sight of what it feels like to be a non-management employee. As you succeed, you will get promoted and with that will come all the trappings of corporate success. Stay connected to the experience and challenges that your employees have each day and what matters the most to them. Create rituals or habits where you are in regular conversation with employees about their day-to-day life at work. And, to the extent you can, help the up-and-coming leaders in your organization to do the same.

Regardless of all of this, I don’t want you to take the wrong message. CEOs don’t have to “get it” for you to make some big progress. But, it’s a whole lot easier when they do.

Start with what you can control. Transform your team first. Practice the kind of leadership you expect from others. Your example may help nudge others in the right direction.

 

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