Just be real!

Reclaiming humanity in the workplace… that sounds interesting!

A student and I were checking out the website of one of the keynote speakers at the upcoming Best Business Practices Tradeshow to take place in Montreal. Her name is Patty Azzarello and is a northern New Jersey native who has risen to become a Silicon Valley CEO. She also has a couple of books to her credit and now tours as a speaker.  

Reclaiming humanity in the workplace was the title of the TEDTalk posted on her site that caught our attention, so we clicked.

We had time to watch a few minutes before the class was up and being interested in anything that has to do with authenticity in the corporate world, I was curious: How does she propose to bring humanity back into the office?

Quite frankly, Azzarello gave an inspiring talk. Here are her three suggestions:

1. Step out of the hierarchy and show up as a real person.

Being a real person has nothing to do with hierarchy; it takes place outside of the hierarchy, where, as human beings, we are all standing on the same ground, with the same needs, the same feelings, the same experiences. We are all the same.

2. Have a human conversation.

Here Patty challenges leaders to be brave enough to overcome the fear of doubt, dissent and opposition to their authority to ask the simple four-word question: What do you think?  What a demonstration of trust and belief in your colleagues. It is quite simply, the best way to work as a team – mobilizing the collective intelligence around a common goal. It’s a win-win situation for all involved!

3. Be genuinely interested in what the other person has to say.

When Azzarello said this, the audience laughed. Nervous laughter, perhaps? But so true; how many times do we ask another person their opinion, only to block out what they are saying and respond: “Oh, thanks. Guess that validates my solution.” – without even taking the time to listen or genuinely engage with the other person’s ideas.  Experiment: next time you ask your spouse their opinion, take a deep breath and really listen to what they have to say. You may be surprised by the outcome of events!

Azzarello then went on to explain how she applies these three points with her own management team. She meets with her employees and lays out the plan or strategy and then steps out of her position and says candidly: “This is what we want to do, but I don’t have all the answers. What do you think?” What ensues is a genuine dialogue about possibilities, fears and ideas. Together, they work out the details and the timeline despite the inevitable conflict and discussion. Everyone leaves feeling heard and seen, and she leaves, confident that her employees have had the opportunity to share their truth.  

Her mentor simply advised: Talk to everyone, and you’ll know what to do.

But where did this way of dealing with things come from? Patty describes how she met with her mentor when she was about to begin her first major executive position, terrified and insecure about her new role. Her mentor simply advised: “Talk to everyone, and you’ll know what to do”.  Patty took her mentor at their word, and as soon as she arrived in her new position, she scheduled 100 one-on-one sessions with the employees!  

Can you imagine? She sat and conversed with them human-to-human and asked them simple questions like:

  • What do you think?
  • What do you think I need to know?
  • What do you think is important?
  • What do you think is working, is not working?
  • What do you think we need to change?
  • What do you think I’m missing here?

What a payoff! Just sitting and listening and caring to what those employees had to say, gave her wings. (And you thought Red Bull was powerful! Just try asking questions!) She was able to go on and successfully lead that team (and new teams entrusted her as her career evolved) empowered by the mutual respect and trust of her co-workers.

The clincher is what she says at the end:

You don’t have to conform [implying becoming the stereotypical self-sufficient arrogant executive] if you don’t want to. And in fact, if you are willing to show up as your real self and respect humanity of others, you will actually be at your most powerful and most credible. (Patty Azzarello)

I guess the bottom-line is pretty clear: if you want to reclaim humanity in your workplace, then be human and others will be human with you, too. Show you care, and they’ll be there!

So, what do you think? Don’t be shy to leave a comment. Seriously, I’d love to know what you have to say – about this post, the blog, being human at work… Feel free!

  • Thanks for reading and keep learning,  Claire :O)

[TedxAsburyPark, August 8 2017: https://youtu.be/jEzqrnpgEe0)

Who do you choose to be?

Tomorrow is November 11, Remembrance Day; it’s a time to remember the soldiers that gave their lives to counter the forces that were jeopardizing the freedoms we take for granted today. As I ponder their sacrifice, I can’t help but see a certain, though obviously not so dramatic, parallel between the challenges they braved and the future described by the author I was reading today. Those soldiers, and so many civilians, courageously chose to stand up and fight impending disaster to provide a better life for us today.

During a discussion at university on Friday about the challenges of resonant leadership in the face of opposing values or ideologies, my professor dropped the expression islands of sanity as he explained that a leader in this kind of situation needs to focus on what they can do to change things, rather than what they can’t, to create a refuge of hope in a sea of disorder and chaos. Just like those soldiers did during the First and Second World Wars, and our armed forces continue to do throughout the world where freedoms are threatened today.

The expression, islands of sanity, is used by Margaret J. Wheatley in her book entitled Who Do We Choose To Be? Facing Reality, Claiming Leadership, Restoring Sanity (published by Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2017).  I ordered the book online and was ecstatic to get it already today. I was mesmerized right from the first page. Here are a few challenging thoughts I came across while reading.

Warning: This is no feel-good book; rather, it is a call to arms in an era that is increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous).

  1. Wise leaders are willing to give up the delusion that technology can save us, or that we can master the Universe. We must face the reality of decline and choose actions that support people, not technology. The choice couldn’t be more clear. Or consequential.  (p. 41)
  • A culture focused on individual freedom can only result in narcissism, polarization, conflict, estrangement, and loneliness. What is the meaning of life if it’s all about me? (p. 69)
  • We could have been anything we wanted, yet free-floating individualism has taken us far from community, contribution or connection, the very things that truly give life meaning and purpose. (p. 70)
  • Cultures focused on popularity have no depth or resilience. They are superficial and ephemeral: tastes change; fashions come and go; fads rise and fall. Always changing, such a culture increases our sense of uncertainty and vulnerability. We may be popular now, but beneath the surface our anxiety and stress keep growing. Will you still love me tomorrow? (p. 72)
  • More speed, new apps, artificial intelligence, more connectivity through technology is not the answer. Sane leadership is. (p. 74)

Certainly, we are not facing the same challenges as the generation that celebrated that first Armistice Day in 1918; however, we all have a choice to make in terms of who we desire to be and which values we desire to defend. Personally, I am thankful for the choices made by my own Grandfather Todd (WWI) and Uncle Tom (WWII), and feel challenged by the words penned by Wheatley to our own generation:

Who do you choose to be for this time? Are you willing to use whatever power and influence you have to create islands of sanity that evoke and rely on our best human qualities to create, produce and persevere? (p. 11)

How do these quotes resonate with you? Who are you thankful for this Remembrance Day? Share below.

– Claire :o)  

[Image: musicman/Shutterstock]

How’s your company’s heart?

No, I’m not talking about the profit margin, sales, or ROI. I’m talking about how your company supports employees when they are under the weather, down and out, or fighting an uphill battle. What’s the plan when a manager realizes that one of the employees in their department is no longer cutting it? It’s when the going gets rough, that the true heart of a company starts beating.

It’s when the going gets rough, that the true heart of a company starts beating.

This post was inspired by two encounters I had lately. During the first one, a friend mentioned a doctor’s appointment to discuss her state. She’s overwhelmed with a number of issues both in and out of work. She’s feeling fragile and close to a breakdown. I wondered if her manager had met her to discuss how she was feeling, what was going on, which tasks could be taken away to lighten the load. There was no mention of that.

Less than four days later, another friend told me about her progressive return to work, one day the first week, two days the second week, etc. Her supervisor met her the first day of the second week and asked point blank what her game plan was. Game plan? What game plan? For now, maybe one day at a time?

Game plan? What game plan? For now, maybe one day at a time?

According to a 54-page document published by the Canada Conference Board in 2016, entitled Healthy Brains at Work. Employer-Sponsored Mental Health Benefits and Programs, out of the 239 employers surveyed, only 39% (much less than half) had a mental health strategy in place. Yet the costs are exorbitant; the Ontario Chamber of Commerce states on their website that businesses dish out approximately $1500/employee per year to cover the cost of mental health issues.

Businesses dish out approximately $1500/employee per year to cover the cost of mental health issues. – Ontario Chamber of Commerce

Of course, the goal of a business isn’t to play psychologist, therapist or social worker, however, human capital is touted as being the most important capital the company has to work with. Without humans, no company can turn a profit.

In the equation for productivity and growth, where is the emotional variable? The human factor plays a huge role. It doesn’t take an MBA to know that employee retention is a function of engagement, and that engagement is in proportion to the meaning, belonging and support an employee draws from their work. Without empathy in action: care, counsel and compassion, the human factor can become a deterrent to the company’s success.

Without empathy in action: care, counsel and compassion, the human factor can become a deterrent to the company’s success.

It seems surprising that in this age of Bell Talks and so many other mental health campaigns, companies appear to still be in the dark as to how to handle this kind of challenge. A mental health strategy meets two goals: prevention and remediation.

Here are just five simple suggestions to maintain the company’s heart:

  • Hold workshops and training sessions on mindfulness, meditation/exercise and mental health;
  • Publish tips and ideas for well-being regularly on the company intranet or in the corporate newsletter;
  • Maintain communication with employees who are on sick leave to maintain the relationship and facilitate reintegration;
  • Actively work to dispel the stigma relating to mental health issues, like depression, anxiety and burnout;
  • Allocate corporate budget to provide HR with adequate resources to handle mental health issues in the company.  

What does your company do to keep its heart in great shape? Share it in the comments below.

Take care, and keep learning!

Claire :o)

PS For more resources, see the links below:

  1. https://www.conferenceboard.ca/temp/b87f9168-c10a-4b59-82e2-c14e513ae93b/7707_Healthy_Brains_Benefits-and-Programs_BR_EN.pdf
  2. https://occ.ca/mentalhealth/

[Photo Credit: Dragon Images/Shutterstock]

The Call of the Open Road

No, I don’t know what I am going to do next, but that doesn’t bother me. It’s time [to go].”

A friend and I were discussing her recent discussion to leave her job. She talked about the subsequent reactions from friends and colleagues: surprise, consternation and wonder, bordering on envy. She told me she was comfortable with taking some time for self-reflection before jumping immediately into another employment opportunity.

When she said that, I read her the following excerpt from the Leaves of Grass poem by Walt Whitman I had seen just this week in Wherever You Go, There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

I exist as I am, that is enough,

If no other in the world be aware I sit content,

And if each and all be aware I sit content.

One world is aware and by far the largest to me, and that is myself,

And whether I come to my own today or in ten thousand or ten million years,

I can cheerfully take it now, or with equal cheerfulness, I can wait.

I couldn’t help but think that Dewitt Jones, former photographer for National Geographic, would agree with the sentiment.  In his TEDx South Lake Tahoe talk of January 3 2018 entitled Celebrate What’s Right With The World, Jones eloquently reminds the audience and viewers through awe-inspiring photos and a skillfully crafted narrative, that there is a world of possibilities out there, and that there is more than one solution to the challenges we encounter.  

I especially liked the way he summarized his main point: “Change your lens, change your life.

My friend has changed her lens. Her life is about to change. Who knows what she’ll do next? Does you always have to know? Regardless, it’s her life, her choice. I’m convinced whatever she chooses, will line up with her values, beliefs and personality.

I wish her well; I can almost feel the waft of freedom and excitement on my face as I see her in my mind’s eye walking out the door of this life to embark on a new journey towards new horizons.   

Walt Whitman was a man who obviously knew something about the abundance of possibilities and the exhilaration of exploration and discovery. He expressed it well in his poem Song of the Open Road.

Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road,

Healthy, free, the world before me.

The long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose.

Henceforth I ask not good-fortune – I myself am good fortune;

Henceforth I whimper no more, postpone no more, need nothing,

Strong and content, I travel the open road.

Safe travels, my friend, and keep learning!  

  • Claire :o)

[Photo Credit: Dominic Lelièvre, 2019.

Poem Leaves of Grass: Walt Whitman in Jon Kabat-Zinn, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, 10th Anniversary Edition, Hyperion, NY, USA, 1994, p. 35.

TedxTalk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gD_1Eh6rqf8

Poem Song of the Open Road: https://www.bartleby.com/142/82.html]

Outer mess, inner stress?

“Tell me something you don’t like”, I asked my student.

“I don’t like when things are messy.”

“”Really”, I responded, “why? “

I don’t know.”

“Okay, well, what does it make you feel?”

“No idea.”

“You just don’t like it. You prefer when things are in their place, organized, structured?”

“Yes, let’s say I arrive at someone’s house and it’s a mess. I feel like taking a huge garbage bag and shoving it all in! “

I wasn’t really surprised. She works in administration. It’s her job. But also, I surmised, a part of her personality. Someone who likes everything in their right place.

Right place. What a concept! Is it possible we polarize things right down to our belongings?

Reflecting on ideas I’ve been reading from Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Tsoknyi Rinpoche and from my Authentic Leadership course at university, I mused on that right and wrong reflex we develop from such a young age.

From what I’ve gleaned, our polarization is a prehistoric reflex we develop to ensure our safety and security; once we learn to distinguish the presence of objects outside of ourselves, we start categorizing them into good and bad, nice and mean, right and wrong.

Of course, we need to differentiate if something is good for us or not, however when it starts influencing our inner states of well-being or ‘rightness’, it may have become a little excessive.

Let me share one of my own typical personal default settings. When I get up in the morning, the first thing I do when arriving in the kitchen is to scan for orderliness and cleanliness. If it doesn’t meet my standards, I start putting things away.

Why? Otherwise I just can’t relax.

Okay, so you’re saying you’re the same as your student?

Yes, guess so!

You may now well ask: what can you do about it?  

I must admit it’s not an easy reconfiguration to make. However, my university class is challenging me: what belief does that discomfort stem from? What is the deep-down need that is being jeopardized?

Ouch! For me, I realized that I was taught: work, before play; you can go out once you’ve done your chores; you have to clean your room before you can go and play.  

Do any of these sound familiar to you?

Good work ethic, but is it always realistic, to keep everything in order, structured, under control? No, it would perhaps be healthier to learn to accept that I can’t always be in control, that there’s a time for everything.  

Upon deeper thought, I realized that that work ethic was instilled in me at a time that it equated acceptance and love, and a sense of security.

Yikes! Does that mean my OCD could stem from that?

Perhaps yes, perhaps not. I’m just saying our behaviors sometimes stem from a deeper belief that may not be entirely appropriate now that you’re an adult.

Does that mean anyone’s OCD stems from that?

Only they know that! Maslow’s pyramid of needs refer to physiological, security, love & belonging, self-esteem, fulfillment, and transcendence. Only they can know what need was at stake when they developed the automatic behavior, which instilled a foundational belief that would guide future action.

Final thought: when you’re getting all worked up from the visual chaos, you might want to ask yourself:

Why am I getting so worked up?  When did I start reacting like that? What is the underlying belief?

Maybe it’s time to let it go and be a little more realistic – and at the same time become a little easier to live or work with!   

Does your inner level of stress grow in proportion to the outer mess? How do you deal with it?

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Cheers, and keep learning!

Claire :o)

[Photo: Conrado/Shutterstock]

When saying good-bye is hard to do

There must be around ten people who have left the company lately‘, complained one of my students this week, as he went on to admit that he found it hard.  

As I asked questions, his colleague joined the conversation and I could feel the turmoil, questioning and well, sadness at the state of affairs.

Although we all agreed that employee movement is a regular occurrence at work, saying good-bye to a well-appreciated team-mate and fellow employee is never easy.

Memories of shared jokes, frustrations and achievements accomplished together add to the bittersweet nature of the event. On the one hand, you’re happy for the colleague who is embarking on a new professional adventure, yet on the other hand, their absence will be sorely missed.

New employees will come in with fresh ideas, different points of view and alternate ways to do things. A period of transition may affect the morale and productivity of the team.

Back home, I was working on translating a guide to grief. I couldn’t help but notice the parallels. I thought I’d share a few thoughts on navigating the post-departure phase of a friend and colleague.

Departures, much like death, are a fact of life.  Each employee, as each person revolving around a lost family member, had their own personal relationship with the co-worker, so each employee will therefore react differently to the loss. It’s important and normal to feel sad, just like in any grieving process.

Commemorating the event is a humane and essential way to mark the start of a new phase of life for the departing employee, but also the employees who are remaining at the job. 

  1. Take time to share ideas on how to best symbolize the departure of the employee. This will permit a variety of points of view that will reflect the different ways the departing colleague left their mark at their workplace.
  2. Allow people who wish to make a special homage or write a special message in a collective card to do it so they can express their feelings in a personal way.
  3. Remind colleagues that it’s normal and okay to talk about the person who has left in the days and weeks that follow. Obviously, the essential thing is that it doesn’t affect their work.
  4. Lastly, no-one knows what challenges a fellow employee is dealing with both at home and at work. A departure can be the straw that breaks the camels back, that triggers existential questioning and perhaps even bouts of anxiety and depression. In that case, it is important to ask the RH department for advice on employee help services.  

In case you were wondering if I know what I’m talking about, I myself had to say good-by to one of my favourite colleagues ever just last week over dinner and drinks. It was sad, but I’m happy for her considering she is going to take on a wonderful new opportunity in a new city with her beau. I’ll miss her for sure, but I’m already on the look out for new colleagues to develop close relationships with – not to replace her (no-one can do that!) – but just to enhance the workplace feels.

A departure needn’t disrupt workplace harmony and well-being. It can be an event that ushers in new possibilities and horizons. 

How have you coped with the departure of a colleague friend? What worked best for you? Share it in the Comments section below!

Cheers to you Charlie, and keep learning!

Claire :O)

ESL Mixologist: What’s the deal?

I am never just teaching an English class! I am on the lookout for new insights or epiphanies I may have while talking about vocab, grammar or functional language.

ESL Mixologist is all about my journey as an ESL teacher who just can’t get over the serendipitous glimpses into the parallel universe of philosophy while teaching language learners.

It is an endless source of amazement for me to see how a verb tenses reveal psychological realities (example: Are you living in the present continuous or the simple past?!); word meanings disclose unexpected portals into past civilizations and faraway existences (example: courage comes from the Latin word cor meaning heart, or as Brené Brown explains, telling one’s story whole-heartedly); and discussion topics (example: If you were a star, what would you ask for from the show organizers?) open the mind to whole new possibilities and dreams.    

Just as a savvy mixologist combines sweet, sour and alcohol to create daring new taste experiences, ESL Mixologist takes you inside my language teacher’s mind where I experiment with continually changing combinations of syntax, semantics and pragmatics, to gain insights into some of life’s more major questions.  

Syntax (Structure)

Language: According to Google dictionary, syntax is “the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language.

Life: How can I get my life better organized for optimal enjoyment?  How does this all work?

Semantics (Meaning)

Language: Secondly, semantics (quoting the Google dictionary), “involves the branch of linguistics or logic concerned with meaning.

Life: What is meaningful to me? What is really important? What does this experience mean?

Pragmatics (Use)

Language: Finally, pragmatics (from the Google dictionary again) is “the branch of linguistics dealing with language in use and the contexts in which it is used […] text organization, presupposition, and implicature.

Life: What should I do? How do I deal with this situation? What do I say?

I never thought that teaching ESL could be so stimulating. It is so much more than vocab lists and grammar rules, handouts and tests. For me, it’s all about teaching (and learning) to initiate and maintain connections. What could be more meaningful than that?

Cheers, and keep learning!

Claire :o)