Dreading your weekly all-hands meeting? How to lead them with less social angst.

All-hands meetings, sometimes referred to as town halls, have become common practice in organizations of all sizes, giving employees across teams an opportunity to meet with leadership. They also provide an opportunity to engage remote colleagues, fostering their sense of connection to their company. Marc Benioff of Salesforce stresses the importance of all-hands meetings “there is nothing more important for a growing company than constant communication and complete alignment.” Whether I’m coaching a seasoned CEO or an emerging team leader at a tech startup, one of the first areas people want to work on is their executive presence at all-hands meetings. According to Gokul Rajaram from Square, the best led all-hand meetings should drive company culture by:

  • celebrating people and accomplishments
  • drawing alignment to the organization’s mission, strategy and priorities
  • providing a forum to ask and answer questions.

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“To be honest, I dread our all-hands meetings. I feel pressure to share updates that prove I’m effective in my role, but worry that what I’m saying is boring or meaningless to others.” (actual confession made by nearly everyone who’s ever had to give an all-hands update.)

“I end up spending my entire night preparing for the all-hands, and I don’t even know if it makes a difference- I end up feeling anxious regardless, and I could use that time to get other work off my plate.” (remorse expressed by nearly everyone who’s ever prepared to lead an all-hands.)

Why do so many people experience angst at all-hands meetings? Even people who are typically comfortable speaking in front of others can feel awkward and unsure of what to say at their all-hands, especially if they fear their update to the group will be perceived as too granular, vague, inferior- wasting people’s time. Not only does the all-hands place us squarely in the middle of social comparisons, it forces us to witness real time reactions in a group setting increasing our self-consciousness. Our human nature compels us to seek approval from others, fear social judgement and rejection, and analyze our social standing relative to others. Human social norm adherence is at the backbone of our evolutionary history.  Adhering to social norms was critical to our survival for thousands of years, providing group protection from predators, nourishment through cooperative hunting and farming, and securing our genetic legacy through cooperative mating.

In today’s day and age, people’s perceptions of us continue to influence our sense of social standing, particularly in our place of work, where success or failure remains critical to our livelihood and self image. Organizational leaders feel pressure to orchestrate effective all-hands meetings, knowing that a poorly led one runs the risk of being a massive drain on productivity, dampening the collective mood across and within teams. Left unchecked, these all-hands can turn into ‘sharing for the sake of sharing’ and a lost opportunity to energize and inspire attendees.

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So rather than spending the evening before an all-hands on gut-wrenching rehearsal, use this simple framework for filtering what to include and what not to include:

Share compelling information that illuminates both progress and challenges:

  • Focus on sharing updates and progress with an emphasis on WHO this information will be helpful to, and WHY it matters in the big picture of the organization’s mission and goals.
  • Provide context by drawing connections between strategy and results, comparing outcomes with expectations. Rather than framing missed outcomes as failures or alluding to blame, recognize when people’s efforts revealed compelling information, both positive and negative.

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Connect with listeners through the lens of their shared experience.

  • When you acknowledge common frustrations and shared experiences, you increase trust by recognizing the challenges commonly felt across a team. Team shortages, sparse resources, and stalled progress are all opportunities to express empathy, normalizing people’s grievances.
  • Particularly when things get rough as a quarter gets underway, boost morale by talking about personal highlights of gratitude, encouraging shout-outs to team members who went the extra mile or helped the most in the past month.

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Provide opportunities for people to safely share feedback about the all-hands to leadership.

  • Answer pre-asked questions: Provide a forum  ( ideally through an online tool) for people to ask questions in advance of the all-hands, and for everyone to vote on the questions they want answered. The person who is closest to the topic responds to the top questions asked.
  • Use anonymous surveys to ask attendees to rate the all-hands, and provide an open-ended comment field around how it could be better. And, like with everything else, if you don’t actually address and plan to act on the comments, you shouldn’t ask for them.

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This framework gives attendees an opportunity to feel acknowledged, curious, empowered and informed during their all-hands. No matter how you go about running an all-hands, stay connected to their purpose. All-hands meetings exist to reinforce what matters to everyone, all at once. Keeping that in mind can help you take all of the above and shape it to reflect fit your organization’s culture, mission and goals.

 

 

 

 

 

How startup founders use cognitive behavioral coaching to master their toughest conversations.

Executive coaching was developed to help people make the most of their abilities, gain deeper self-awareness, build people skills and resiliency for mastering the challenges of work life. Startup founders, senior management or leaders with significant responsibilities enlist coaches to help them bring new insights and skills to their relationships and broader life picture. 

 Coaching startup founders through crucial conversations isn’t just serving as a sounding board while they pitch investors, work through co-founder conflict and make hiring and firing decisions as their company scales. Founders undergo a great deal of personal transformation on this journey. They are also responsible for elevating early employees into leadership roles in which they likely have little to no experience. When founders use coaching to learn evidence-based cognitive behavioral tools for personal growth and in their management practices, they internalize a coaching mindset. This leadership style positively impacts the overall health and stability of the organization’s interpersonal climate.

This week while working with a client on communication skill building, she asked me:

“Why are crucial conversations so much harder for some people than others? Giving negative feedback to my employees is the least favorite part of my job as a CEO.” –Startup founder

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Here’s a truth I’ve learned from having thousands of therapy and coaching sessions with people about their toughest crucial conversations: everyone experiences heightened, uncomfortable emotions. So unless you’re a psychopath (which is a different article!) it’s not realistic to expect to remain emotionally unchanged when facing high-stakes, crucial conversations. Humans evolved to experience this ‘Fight or Flight’ Response as a survival instinct in the face of perceived threat. When we anticipate having a high-stakes conversations, our brains can get railroaded by our emotions, mimicking the addiction response and diminishing our ability to think critically and generate effective responses. Without developing a practice to manage effectively this pattern, founders are at high risk for making poor management decisions and eventually burnout. 

The premise of Cognitive Behavioral Theory is that our emotions are triggered by automatic thoughts that serve to alert us to the possibility of imminent danger. People’s perceptions occur as spontaneous thoughts, which directly influence their emotional, behavioral, and physiological reactions. Our perceptions are often magnified or distorted when they are distressed, making it difficult to see things objectively. By examining our “automatic thoughts” and identifying the factual evidence that refutes them, we are more capable of seeing a view that more closely resembles reality. With practice, our distress will decreases considerably, allowing us to make behavioral choices with higher functionality.

 

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Billionaire investor, author and co-founder of Oaktree Capital Howard Marks discusses risk assessment and the psychology of investing on The Knowledge Project with Shane Parrish. He attributes his success with high-stakes decision-making to his ability to confront the evolutionary emotional programming that automatically drives human behavior. He shares that by adopting a mindset of ‘dispassionate observation and examination of thought‘ before acting, people can learn to accept the impossibility of predicting or controlling the future with 100% accuracy. This mindset reduces the risk of making decisions that overshoot a situation, out of instinctual enthusiasm or fear. In essence, putting cognitive behavioral tools at the helm of his investment decision-making. Founders can use this approach for their toughest, crucial conversations to stabilize their emotions, conserve mental energy and improve the odds of a successful outcome.

How to Use Cognitive Behavioral Tools in Crucial Conversations:

Practice writing out evidence-based thought records to dissect past situations that have lead to uncomfortable feelings. This simple but powerful exercise trains your brain to re-examine how your thoughts, feelings and behaviors are all interconnected.

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Practice observing behaviors and listening for the ‘content versus conditions’ of a conversation as a way to spot the risk of a conversation turning into a conflict. The instant people perceive disrespect in a conversation (a hostile condition), the interaction is no longer about the original purpose (the content)- it is now about defending oneself, further escalating emotions.

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Our emotional responses naturally turns into a ‘storyline’ or narrative in our head when we perceive hostility that feels like an injustice, shaping how we ‘make meaning’ of the person’s actions. Look for the factual evidence that supports your storyline and identify the emotional response tied to it.

With the understanding that rarely is any situation 100% factually true, look for the evidence that does not support your ‘story’. Practice questioning your conclusionslook for evidence that supports other possible perspectives with the goal of identifying multiple perspectives.

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Keep practicing the habit of identifying your emotional response and stories, developing a more balanced point of view rather than accepting your own without question. Learn to understand and take into account multiple perspectives before engaging in crucial conversations.  This mindset will translate into more effective exchanges in your relationships, and ultimately help you become a more successful, well-respected leader.

Your brain responds to competition more than you know- choose your motivational tools wisely.

Do you know what drives your urge to compete? Your motivation influences your performance outcomes, whether you acknowledge it or not. 

Wanting to win‘ versus ‘wanting to avoid losing‘ are two subtle yet measurably distinct differences that drive people’s sense of competition. Murayama and Elliot’s (2012) meta-analyses found the effects of competition depend on this difference in the minds of competitors. When someone wants to outperform others by winning, they tend to benefit from competition, but when they want to avoid performing worse than others, competing reduces their performance. Burnette et al’s (2013) meta-analysis found that the desire to win is positively related to goal achievement, whereas the desire to avoid losing is negatively related to goal achievement. Senko et al’s (2017) meta-analysis found that “wanting to win” improves performance only when it’s accompanied by strategies that leverage a competitor’s feelings of mastery. The take-away from these research findings is that “wanting to win” is not enough to protect people from the pitfalls of social competition that provokes fear of losing.

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A primary function of executive coaching is helping people build lasting tactical strategies that motivate behavioral change for goal achievement and peak performance. My coaching practice in Silicon Valley is filled with non-stop competitive people- entrepreneurs, CEOs, venture capitalists, and creative builders leading the edge of tech innovation. Naturally, using competition to fuel new habit formation and improve performance is a no-brainer for many of my clients. But not all tools designed to foster competition  will improve motivation and performance for all people, in all situations. Competition is good for sustaining motivation and achievement only when it reinforces feelings of competency or a person’s intrinsic values beyond winning alone.

Designing life goals through the lens of one’s self-determined values is vital not just for achieving a high success rate but for overall psychological well-being. As one might expect, people generally like to feel in control of their own lives. Self-Determination Theory asserts that people seek and engage activities that satisfy these Three Basic Psychological Needs:

Competence: the feeling of satisfaction achieved through completing a challenging goal. Why does this matter? You get to feel masterful and effective. You get to feel that you’re achieving hard things. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are ineffectiveness and helplessness!)

Relatedness: the satisfaction you get when you feel understood, liked and inspired by people you care about or value. Why does this matter? You get to feel closer to the people you’re engaging with in meaningful ways. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are feeling rejected and disconnected!)

Autonomy: the satisfaction you get when you act with a sense of personal commitment and choice. Why does this matter? You get to feel in control and the master of your own outcomes. (Great for people whose personal pet peeves are feeling coerced and micro-managed!)

Cross-cultural research has shown these Three Basic Psychological Needs to be intrinsic to all people’s healthy development, engagement, motivation, and well-being. When these needs are met people achieve greater work performance, less perceived stress, and experience fewer turnover intentions. When these needs are blocked, people are likely to experience negative psychological consequences.

A Behavior Change Technique (BCT) is an ‘active ingredient that brings about behavior change’. BCT’s are often used to build a competitive framework, and can either support or frustrate the three Basic Psychological Needs.

How Different Behavior Change Techniques support or frustrate the ‘Three Basic Psychological Needs’
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Goal Crafting.
    • Build in meaningful ‘whys’ or reaching the end goal of a competition won’t matter. Self-Determination Theory tells us many goals fail to motivate because they aren’t personally relevant, or they provide incentives that help people avoid losing rather than winning for personally rewarding reasons. Helping people craft goals that reflect their unique values reinforces their sense of autonomy.
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Feedback Crafting.
    • Build in useful feedback or making progress in the competition won’t matter. Self-Determination Theory tells us well crafted feedback promotes feelings of competence and mastery. As people monitor their progress through feedback they have the chance to use well-timed feedback for making improvements. Crafting feedback that provides a practical roadmap for making improvements helps people achieve feelings of competency. Encourage how feedback is incorporated to reinforce the person’s sense of autonomy.
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Social Comparison.
  • Behavioral Change Technique: Competition Size Matters.
    • Build a group size that factor’s in a person’s proximity to the top performance to optimize a person’s effort. There’s a reason why Junior Varsity and Varsity teams are still a thing! If you want to get the most benefit from a competition creating small, ability-based groups may be the best way to go. A 2009 study by Stephen Garcia and Avishalom shows competition is most motivating when there are fewer competitors in the comparison pool.

Whether in a work environment or in one’s personal life, people who measure their growth against those with comparable values and abilities experience boosts in motivation and performance. “When we see someone else just like us being able to complete a task and gain the recognition we seek, we up our game to achieve these outcomes for ourselves” according to Jillene Grover Seiver, PhD, professor of psychology, who’s research findings demonstrate the positive influence of rivalry on competition outcomes.

These are just a few of the techniques I use to inspire meaningful motivation through executive leadership coaching. By considering how our innate psychological needs factor into what’s driving our sense of competition, we can achieve greater outcomes with longer lasting results.

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Assuming positive intent- the secret weapon to surviving the holiday season.

The holidays are coming, or as people in the tech industry like say ‘seasonality‘ is approaching. During this time of year most of us will face a series of negotiations and decisions with people across our professional and personal lives. Conversations will unfold with co-workers and loved ones as we work to sync calendars, discuss budgets for spending, solidify holiday plans, and account for the differing needs of others during the busiest time of year. When differences of opinions arise, the urge to ‘be right’ is an irresistible response that heightens our emotions and can fuel conflict with others. (To every family member of mine reading this bear with me as I illuminate the small yet significant insights you’ve inspired over the years. Thank you for being my experimental group! Signed, Dr. Know-It-All.)

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‘Assuming positive intent‘ can help us move past our need to ‘be right’ and ‘win the debate’ and instead, cultivate a conversation where both parties are invested in finding effective solutions.  While the following tips won’t necessarily ‘feel right’ or reinforce your hard-won identity as a debate champion, it will help you avoid the emotional drain of gridlocking with others committed to their point of view.

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How to ‘assume positive intent’

The act of trying something new with a lightness of heart can be referred to as a ‘lark’. How to assume positive intent when conflict arises with others using my L.A.R.K. approach:

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  • Listen for their story. When we hear an opinion from someone that contradicts our understanding of a situation, we tend to stop listening because we become preoccupied with changing their mind until they agree with us. When we stop listening, we not only signal to the other person we aren’t interested in understanding them, we literally cut ourselves off from hearing critical information that could help lead to a mutually agreeable solution.
  • Acknowledge their point of view. Our tendency is to jump to conclusions when someone does something differently than we would, and assume the worst. Because humans are hardwired to perceive threat in instances of conflict, we focus on finding ulterior motives in those who disagree with us. Make a genuine effort to understand the premise of their opinion based on the information they have, and acknowledge their right to see things differently than you do.
  • Respect their difference. When we assume another person is misinformed, wrong or has malicious intentions, our tone of voice and non-verbal micro-expressions can turn negative. This can be read by others as an unwillingness to respect differences of opinion. Guard against communicating unintentional disrespect by modeling the response you would like to receive from others when it’s your turn to share your opinion.
  • Kindness cultivates generosity. Now when you feel yourself gunning to ‘prove your rightness’, take a step back and remember that when you preoccupy yourself with changing someone’s mind, you are reducing the likelihood of them responding with generosity, and increasing the likelihood of them responding with animosity when it’s time to generate possible solutions. Your job is to listen, acknowledge, respect, and convey kindness before moving on to explore possible solutions that could be mutually agreed upon.

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Indra Nooyi, the CEO of PepsiCo, describes learning to assume positive intent as the best advice she’s ever received:

My father was an absolutely wonderful human being. From him I learned to always assume positive intent. Whatever anybody says or does, assume positive intent. You will be amazed at how your whole approach to a person or problem becomes very different. When you assume negative intent, you’re angry. If you take away that anger and assume positive intent, you will be amazed. Your emotional quotient goes up because you are no longer almost random in your response. You don’t get defensive. You don’t scream. You are trying to understand and listen because at your basic core you are saying, “Maybe they are saying something to me that I’m not hearing.” So “assume positive intent” has been a huge piece of advice for me.

Recognizing a different opinion doesn’t mean you are admitting fault, that your point of view is inferior, or that your opinion should have less value than others. Rather, assuming positive intent gives the other person the benefit of the doubt in order to set the best possible tone for generating solutions. It doesn’t mean you agree with their opinion, but it does allow you to see with more clarity where bridges could exist.

So when your co-founder, team mate or significant other holds an opinion that is entirely different than yours, aim to identify their operating system before trying to change it!

Give yourself the command “Tools > Clear History” to rid your mind of cutter that obstructs your ability to listen with less judgement. While we may never truly ‘know’ another person’s underlying motivation  behind their point of view, we can aim to convey a willingness to respect their difference.  Our mutual bandwidth for problem-solving is increased when we assume positive intent, so all parties gain more data points to generate viable solutions.

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How mindfulness meditation is strengthening today’s top leaders- the science behind the hype.

To stay ahead of the competition these days, high performing leaders are going beyond daily wellness habits in exercise, diet and preventative behavioral health. Mindfulness meditation has become the gold standard for fueling the uppermost skills that leaders depend upon in moments critical to their success. David Gelles’ book Mindful Work discusses the rising utility of mindfulness in the workplace, with leading companies like Google, General Mills, Disney and Patagonia using mindfulness training for measurable gains across all levels of employment. 

The ability to focus and stabilize our emotional responses to internal and external stimuli cannot be understated. Even for individuals who thrive under pressure, operating under chronic fast-paced, demanding conditions taxes our brain’s acuity over time. Brain training through mindfulness meditation works to restore our mental agility, improving our ability to effectively respond to stressors.

What is mindfulness meditation?

Mindfulness, put simply, is paying attention in the present moment and choosing to respond purposefully and without judgement rather than automatically. Using mindfulness allows us to respond from a place of clarity and compassion, rather than becoming overwhelmed by the physiological changes we experience in moments of stress.  This ‘freeze, fight or flight’ response evolved in humans as a survival mechanism, enabling us to react quickly to life-threatening situations and is responsible for instinctual emotional reactions like greed, fear or anger meant to protect us from harm. Chronic activation of this survival mechanism not only impedes our ability to think clearly and perform optimally, it’s proven to be deleterious to our overall health.

The practice of meditation dates back thousands of years with a wide span of techniques tied to cultural and spiritual origins. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT PhD in molecular biology developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in 1979. His work has been instrumental in bringing the health benefits of mindfulness practice to the public’s attention and scientific communities worldwide. Scientific outcome studies on mindfulness have since demonstrated positive benefits for people with chronic pain, heart diseaseaddiction, tinnitus, and complex physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.

My doctoral training in mindfulness meditation began nearly 20 years ago through UCSF/San Francisco VA Medical center. I helped vets manage chronic pain and anxiety, quit smoking and improve their eating habits, teaching mindfulness and meditation techniques like progressive muscle relaxation, diaphragmatic breathing and guided imagery. Since then, I’ve seen how universally effective mindfulness is for helping people achieve health and performance goals that otherwise might be insurmountable. Bob Lesser, MPP, LP teaches mindfulness as part of his mental skills training with entrepreneurs in the tech ecosystem, who “gain mental clarity and focus, become less reactive and volatile, and achieve more control over their most challenging emotions.”

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How does mindfulness meditation change your brain?

The science behind the hype:

  1. Improves decision-making. Researchers at Harvard, Yale, and the MIT have found evidence that meditation alters the physical structure of the brain, increasing thickness and brain activity in parts of the prefrontal cortex, where higher-order thinking takes place – judgment, decision making, planning, and discernment. A publication by The Wharton School of Management “Debiasing the Mind through Meditation: Mindfulness and the Sunk-Cost Bias”  discusses how short meditation sessions reduces the likelihood of making decisions based on information from the past that should have no bearing on the choice at hand.
  2. Stabilizes communicate skills under pressure. Instead of avoiding or exacerbating conflict with emotional reactions, mindfulness allows you to navigate clashes with the cool-headedness needed to facilitate successful conflict resolution. A Massachusetts General Hospital study showed that meditation reduced the size of the amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for emotions, particularly fear-based survival instincts) after just 8 weeks.  Mindfulness practitioners were less likely to overreact and had fewer angry outbursts. Gains in “emotional regulation” increased by meditation endured in some cases for up to four years of follow-up.
  3. Increases energy for heightened productivity. Mindfulness practitioners are more equipped to thwart stress and anxiety, and report increased energy levels compared to non-practitioners. Outcome studies on mindfulness have demonstrated reduced cortisol levels among users, quelling their experience of errant stress.
  4. Improves your focus. Meditators have been shown to perform significantly better than non-meditators on all measures of attention, processing speed, and inhibitory control. The most extensive longitudinal study on meditation to date discusses the role of meditation for improving focus and altering cognitive change across a person’s lifespan, preventing age-related mental decline.
  5. Strengthens your body’s immunity and pain tolerance. Mindfulness has proven to help people better manage chronic painaddiction, tinnitus, and recover from complex physical conditions, such as heart diseaseirritable bowel syndrome, cancer, and HIV.
  6. Awakens a deeper creativity. Meditation quiets the brain’s limbic system and supports mental decompression, facilitating the mental flow and innovation that gets lost in a busy, stress-filled day. Mindfulness practitioners were less cognitively rigid than non-practitioners, demonstrating a higher aptitude for getting ‘unstuck’ when solving creative problems.
  7. Builds resilience in the face of setbacks. Highly successful leaders use mindfulness to bounce back from failures, smarter and stronger. Fast-paced, demanding roles require a high stress tolerance, the ability to weather unpredictable outcomes and preserve a solution-focused mindset.
  8. Enhances peak performance. Taking a mindful moment (think seconds not minutes) primes and stabilizes the mind and body for optimal performance outcomes. SEALFIT Founder and CEO Mark Divine puts it beautifully, saying mindfulness is “a progressive process of integration: refining the physical, mental, emotional, intuitional, and spiritual until they emerge as one.”  Michael Gervais, a high performance psychologist for the Seattle Seahawks and other world class athletes and co-creator of USC’s Peak Performance Institute  shares that every morning, he practices the following routine: first thing, (even while lying in bed) take one breath to reconnect your brain and body and remind yourself that 1. everything is ok, 2. followed by setting one clear intention for the day, and 3. one thought of gratitude.

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Is “mindfulness” at risk of becoming just another buzzword? 

With science-backed evidence that mindfulness improves many vital areas of human functioning, the mindfulness meditation movement faces the threat of dilution by detractors hoping to capitalize on its potential, without generating real value for the consumer.

“By slapping the word mindfulness on new products and services simply to make them fashionable, these corporations are making the word itself somewhat impotent.” David Gelles, author of Mindful Work

As a result, people will need to be discerning about the quality of different mindfulness products and services, as the market floods with new apps, programs, and brands that tout mindful solutions.

How should I decide what mindfulness services and products to try? Where to begin?

Whenever exploring a behavioral change for health-intended purposes, it’s important to clarify your goals and expected outcomes, and consider ‘why now’ is a good time to commit to a new activity like mindfulness meditation. Make sure to share this intention with your personal support system, and check in with professionals anytime you encounter challenges in the process. As the holiday season approaches, consider how mindfulness training could be positively impactful for you and/or your organization.

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