Emotions are more powerful than any quarterly report, trend analysis or profit and loss statement. The way we feel, both our positive and negative emotions, plays an enormous role in our ability to succeed. Those feelings deep inside us such as confidence, fear, security, poise, anxiety, calm and the resulting voices in our heads, have immense power over us. What does it mean when we say we need to ‘get our head in the game’? Sometimes work pressures can make us feel as if we are drowning and the struggle to stay afloat leads to even deeper troubles. Learning to ignore the voices of fear or doubt is a practiced skill. Generating our own positive emotions, even when we lack the external positive stimulus to do so, is critically important to the business leader.
So, how do we build a daily habit of feeling like winners so we can win? As leaders, how do we help those on our teams feel victorious more often so that they perform at their highest levels?
Success Comes From The Same Place As Failure
Abraham Maslow, a Brooklyn born psychologist is well known for creating what he called a hierarchy of needs. To this day, it bears his name. Google him and you'll find info about the hierarchy and how its pyramid formation and well-arranged structure of human requirements makes a lot of sense.
Maslow's construct looks like this:
Pretty interesting stuff and also very applicable to leadership professionals, hence Maslow's model has found its way into many workshops and classrooms for managers and leaders of all kinds.
Study the model and you'll find that once some of the basic needs of people are provided for, it becomes possible to grow as a person and to facilitate that growth as a leader. The top most level of the pyramid is where some pretty remarkable things can happen with humans and, arguably, humankind.
But it’s the level just below the top one on Maslow’s construct that I am most interested in.
If solving complex problems, making new things, forming new enterprises and becoming better than we are today all depend on our own sense of self-esteem, confidence and self respect, it must be pretty important that we monitor those feelings and work to keep them healthy, right? How can we reach new horizons as humans and as leaders if we don’t ‘feel’ like we can? You’ve heard the saying ‘If you think you can or you can’t - you’re right.’? It is silly to ignore that we live in a physical world where things must be accomplished and capability matters, but before the first step is taken in any journey, believing we can complete the trip is paramount. Success and failure both reside in our minds.
What is your role as a leader in helping someone ‘feel good’? Should you go out of your way to appreciate your team? In our workspaces, does the state of mind of a team or individual contributor really matter? Hint: It may be the only thing that really does.
Let’s take a look at a few realities about our role as leaders of attitude and mindset within our teams.
LEadership imperative #1 : AUTHENTICITY MATTERS
Workplaces are increasingly selecting and training for high Emotional Intelligence, or EQ, in their leaders. This nuanced skillset can show itself in a variety of ways and crucial to demonstrating you have EQ is being yourself and interacting in ways that are natural and organic to your personality. Faking empathy for someone isn't a great way to build rapport and those around you will see your faux sentiment. We've advanced as a business culture and gone are the days when companies lacked any understanding of healthy work environments, but, there are plenty of companies that slip into old habits. Many workgroups struggle with the balance between pragmatic, results-based expectations and a culture that creates willing players who choose to succeed together. The difference can be YOU as a leader.
DO: Understand yourself well enough to determine what building a genuine care and connection with your direct reports or employees looks like for you. We are all different and connect with others in different ways. The key to caring, versus pretending to care, is understanding your own boundaries and what you enjoy (or don’t) about working with people. Then, bring that comfort and understanding into conversations you have with members of your team. Ask them more about them than you tell about yourself. Create an environment where they can shine and you will benefit from it.
DON’T: See being ‘connected’ to your employees as transactional. ‘Well, I had coffee with Glen yesterday - by Friday I should see his sales figures go up 10%.’ People aren’t formulas. It takes more than plugging in the right figures to get the result you need. Try asking your team members what being cared for and appreciated looks like to them. Maybe Glen has something he needs from you, that once provided, will allow him to hit those Friday goals. You may need to ask him about it so you can discover it together.
LEADERSHIP IMPERATIVE #2 : YOU CAN’t Pour From An Empty Vessel - or can you?
We all have tough days. Sometimes we're burning ourselves out just trying to hit our goals, solve a mountain of problems and keep our business on track. When it comes to emotional generosity toward anyone else during these times, our selfish brain sometimes whispers 'What about me?! They want recognition or thanks? Nobody is working harder than I am now!' When we're buried in stress at work and feeling under appreciated, the last thing we feel like doing is gifting someone with praise or understanding.
But, that's exactly the right time to do it.
In their fantastic book How Full Is Your Bucket?, Tom Rath and Donald O. Clifton use the metaphor of our emotional bucket to discuss how we fill our own and others’ vessels via the quality of the interactions we have. The old adage 'Healer heal thyself' is a valid warning for all of us as leaders in that, for me to fill another's bucket, I have to have something to give. I have to be emotionally healthy in order to contribute to someone else's health. If I am burnt out and incapable of providing positive feedback, I may have no contribution to give a fellow colleague who is running on empty. These are dangerous times - especially for analytical individuals such as myself - we can tend to be quiet and reserved during times of high pressure and if our teams are looking for us to rally them during those times, we may disappoint. But, there's a beautiful reversal you can pull if you're willing to try. Here's what it looked like for me:
For years, my work cycle included weekly routines of travel, often starting in the wee hours of Tuesday mornings. The scene would go something like this - I'd spend a packed Monday reviewing metrics, reports, projections, risk analyses and participating in a dozen phone calls. By the end of that day, I was already exhausted for the week! But, each Tuesday at 4:30am I'd drive to the airport, sleepwalk through security, find my way onto my 5:30 flight and, all the while, have mission critical items flying through my head...
'We've got to fix XYZ...' '...That situation over in the next territory is going to deteriorate...' '....This leader is struggling, it's time for me to coach them to succeed, or...'
I'm a problem solver, that's my job. So, don't get me wrong, I'm well aware that those of us who play this role can't be angry that we must march out and fix things - if there were no problems, we'd have no work to do! Fixing things is part of the fun. But, during these high pressure times it can feel like one more pound of burden on our shoulders to have to think about how we must boost someone else when our bucket may be leaking onto our shoes. So, I decided to open an emotional dividend account.
On certain Tuesday mornings, when I felt maximum pressure and fatigue, I'd comb through our results and seek highlights. Sometimes they were financials. Often examples would include great leadership or acumen demonstrated by someone on my team. My goal was to find a handful and begin sending quick one line emails, texts and other messages that select leaders would receive later that morning. Each item I mentioned was genuinely noteworthy - never did I manufacture reasons for compliments and never did I spray perfume on stink. Remember - authenticity matters. We owe our teams honesty and I never sought to praise anything which wasn't praiseworthy. So, even in a difficult reporting period, I could always find heroic work to highlight, and that was my Tuesday morning goal. By the time I was in the cab, zooming through the city to which I had traveled, a handful of messages had been sent which I hoped would start someone's day with a jolt of positive energy and a drop in their bucket.
Here's a secret: On those Tuesdays when I was at my most wrought and overtaxed, I sent MORE messages. I doubt my teams could ever tell that this was a deliberate tactic on my part and I hope no one was counting, because there were surely some Tuesdays when MANY people got praise and that might have correlated to me having a bucket that was bone dry! But, and here’s the reversal - by praising, bringing light to someone else and helping my amazing team of leaders find the courage to push through another day, I FELT BETTER. By making a deposit in someone else’s emotional account, I received the dividend. My bucket would be positively impacted knowing that the leaders which I was responsible for might have a little added spark that day as they faced the challenges ahead of them.
DO: Find simple ways to show someone what they mean to you and that their work is noticed. Often those you think least in need of such recognition will get the most from it. Realize that you can deliver praise which is both genuinely heartfelt and strategically executed.
DON'T: Assume that a compliment, award or recognition is the way to make someone feel appreciated. Sometimes asking for their help, listening and acting on their ideas or including them in ways they haven't been before will fill someone's bucket to the brim.
LEADERSHIP IMPERATIVE #3 : written reviews aren’t relationships
If we are spending all this time telling our teams what we think of them and trying to get them to feel good, why do I need to do a yearly review?
The documented performance process is a well known constant across companies of every shape and size. Having clarity regarding what is expected of us and a record of how well we have executed against those expectations is important. Often, performance reviews can help a leader grow. But, occassionally performance reviews become a clearance sale of all the stuff we couldn’t sell all year. We haul it out, write it down and try to pass it off as worth something.
If your company uses a written performance process, great. Make those discussions meaningful, truthful and unvarnished. But, if you want that written review to really have power, it should be connected with discussions you’ve had all year with that leader. You should be seeking opportunities to praise and fill their bucket as well as to guide and course correct. Oh, yes, course corrections fill buckets too! You taking time to teach me and invest in me says more about how you care than almost anything you can do.
So, when executed well, that annual development process is hundreds of conversations consisting of compliments, thanks, highlights, watch outs and coaching that, at the end of the year, should all read as very familiar on a performance review.
DO: Give honest feedback throughout the year, and at end of year, based on whatever process you use. Recognize that your words and recognition all year made impact, but what you write sometimes has a more lasting effect. It feels permanent, so take time to get it right.
DON’T: Remain mum all year on how you feel about your star performer (or lowest ranking) and then spill it all in paragraphs of angst and frustration. No one is helped by the ninja performance review that jumps in out of nowhere and stabs someone in the heart, leaving them to bleed out as they realize how dissatisfied you are.
— Kimball Carr is a writer, owner and multi-unit leader with more than two decades of business experience across a wide array of sectors. He has produced work for print, film and the software world and has contributed his leadership to 3 of Fortunes best 100 companies to work for. As a consultant, he works with business and individuals and is currently the co-founder of Grom Coast Surf & Skate, an apparel brand and retail store built specifically for kids. —