How One to One meetings build a solid culture of engaged employees

How often do you engage with your direct-reports? I don’t mean a list of updates at a weekly meeting, or a drive-by debrief when something is falling apart. 

What I mean is: 

  • How often do you sit and talk about what is motivating them? what’s wearing them down? 
  • How often do you tell them what you’re appreciating about their work, and what you would like to see adjusted?

I get it – you’re ready to stop reading because, “I don’t have time for that.”  Give me another couple of minutes to hear me out. 

Why is it worth spending time every week with each direct report??

  • One-to-one meetings strengthen relationships between the manager and their team members, which is foundational to build a solid culture of engaged employees.
  • We all have a need to feel validated. Sharing thoughts one-to-one lets your direct reports know that their insights and concerns are appreciated and taken into consideration.
  • The above prevents all sorts of other problems and challenges, and sets you both up for big success.

There are many benefits to having short, focused meetings one-to-one with your team members:

  •  One-to-one meetings improve efficiency and productivity 

What’s critical to note is that the amount of time you spend holding ad-hoc conversations with your employees, communicating by email and tracking down crucial information will be condensed almost entirely. 

This brief one-to-one communication provides a high-level overview of current issues and progress. These unique meetings significantly boost productivity and cut wasted time. 

  • You’ll build loyalty

Employees will place a greater sense of trust in your leadership if you meet with them regularly for one-to-one meetings. Loyalty cannot be established through a drive-by relationship with your people; frequency and consistency are required.

  • It benefits both of you

Not only will you have the opportunity to discuss needs, goals and expectations, but you’re also giving your folks an advantage by providing your undivided attention. Within this time, your employees are given a chance to relay their progress and receive clear direction for upcoming priorities.

  • You can give feedback in a way that’s meaningful and personable

Providing feedback for your employees can be uncomfortable, but one-to-one meetings offer the ideal opportunity for letting your directs know how they’re doing, and what you expect from them moving forward – it doesn’t have to be more complicated than that.

  • You can check-in on goals/objectives and clearly align on progress and next actions to attain goals

This keeps you (and them!) on track and gets things back on track faster when things are derailing. 

And hey, for those times when the weekly meeting doesn’t avoid a crisis and you have to have “the talk” with someone about a big mess-up, it’s a lot easier to do when you’ve built a foundation of weekly honest conversations full of good talking and good listening. 

So how do you have great one-to-one meetings to achieve all those great things, and not painful and awkward meetings?

Make it Safe

Making it safe and maybe even comfortable for people to speak openly is important. As coaches, we work hard to create this atmosphere with our clients and leaders should strive to do this with their direct reports. If these meetings feel too clinical or formal, they’re less likely to achieve the outcomes we listed above. 

Make this meeting an opportunity to get to know this person better. The point is not just to “get an update on their projects,” but rather, to really get to know them because strong work relationships are foundational to success. 

Not only does that build trust, which is key, but you can, for example, find out if there’s anything worrying them. This can help you foresee issues before they become problems. 

It takes time to establish trust, so don’t call it quits after only one meeting. It takes time to change and build a solid culture and get everyone engaged.

Listen More Than You Talk

Don’t dominate the discussion; instead leave plenty of room for the other person to talk, even if that means sitting in silence. I get it: silence can be uncomfortable, and some folks find it harder than others. It takes time to master the art of sitting in silence. But, silence can be very important, allowing for quiet reflection and encouraging others to speak.

Listen to Understand

This is one of our favorite rules for communication because too many of us listen with the intent to respond. When you stop thinking about how to respond, and actually listen to what someone is saying to you (even if you’re angry about it or disagree with them), you may understand what the other person’s issue or concern is. If you reply with a question to understand their perspective more deeply, they feel heard and then real communication can take place. 

Ask Curiosity-Based Questions

People talk more when they’re encouraged to share, not just with open-ended questions but with curiosity-based questions. Show that you are genuinely interested and eager to learn more by asking inquisitive questions. 

I’ve advised clients to consciously think, “I’m curious about…” when they start to ask a question. For example, if you’re talking to a direct report about a situation and they say something intriguing, you’ll think, “I’m curious about XYZ.” Asking, “You mentioned XYZ and I’d like to know more. What can you tell me about that?” might yield more information than more direct “yes/no” or “why?” questions, which can put people on the defensive.

Build Confidence

Here I mean their confidence first, then yours. Help your staff feel confident in a one-to-one meeting by letting them talk and showing concern for any problems from their point of view.  

For example, if a direct-report shares with you their concern about the risk of delays on one aspect of a project, your mind might immediately think of the negative impact that could have on things, how that would damage other areas you’re responsible for, how it might make you look bad, etcetera, etcetera. 

Instead, try responding by looking at it from their perspective. How difficult might it have been for them to tell you? How worried might they be about all the things you just thought about? How can you inspire them to feel confident in finding solutions?

Build your own confidence, too. You might be feeling silly or even weak – having a meeting where you aren’t guiding the conversation, where you’re not answering questions and telling them what to do when there’s a problem might feel alien to you. Using a coach approach to leadership takes practice, but as you move from being the leader who tells people the answers to helping them find the answers themselves you will see how much stronger your team becomes.

A lot of that feeling is about your own beliefs: thinking you need to solve all problems, thinking you need to always have an answer, thinking you have to have it all together. (If that were true, why would you need a team?!)

Practise letting go of that self-talk and reminding yourself that you’re in this together and you can help each other. Remember that by NOT responding and by NOT imposing your own solutions to problems, you’re helping them to grow and you’re being a great LEADER (instead of a BOSS!). You can feel confident in that – and enjoy the benefits of building a solid culture of engaged employees. 

Review Your Progress

Before you leave a one-to-one meeting, take a few minutes to go over what you’ve discussed. Ask:

  • What was helpful in today’s meeting?  
  • What would you like to have happen differently next time, to make our one-to-one more valuable to you? 

Keep in mind they might not have answers right away, but you can start the next meeting with the same questions – things may have come to them in the meantime.

Coach’s Questions

What benefits from one-to-one meetings do you most want to see with your team? What can you this week do to implement or improve one-to-one meetings with your direct reports?

The holidays are coming – 9 things to think about when planning your office party

Tis the season! This is the time of year for party planning and merrymaking as the calendar year draws to a close.

But how often do we actually make office parties and gatherings fun for everyone?

Those of us who’ve been leaders for a decade or two or more (cough) remember when Christmas parties included a tipsy Santa making off-colour remarks and sometime later when inclusive party planning in December meant calling the office celebration a Holiday Party instead of a Christmas Party. Thankfully, we’ve moved even further in the last few years.

Let’s look at office celebrations a little more broadly and in a way that is more useful not just in December, but whenever you decide to throw a party or celebrate as a team.

When done well, party-planning is more than just putting together a festive occasion. It’s an opportunity to build relationships and strengthen your team. Chances are, at the root of it, you’re having a party to show appreciation.

That means throwing a party that doesn’t leave anyone on the sidelines, feeling awkward or (worse!) offended in some way. And that takes some thought. 

Here’s what you need to consider before you hit send on that invitation:

Diversity is about more than you might think

Most workplaces are comprised of a diversity of people and often we think of this in terms of religious traditions. At some point in the early 90s, North American corporations realized that not everyone celebrates Christmas (hence the Holiday Party!) and that many cultural traditions are valued and celebrated.

While this is a valid consideration, diversity is more than just multiculturalism. Yes, there are those of us who identify as Christian, Jewish, Hindu, Muslim, pagan, atheist or agnostic. We’re likely hearing about plans for big celebrations from Hanukkah to Christmas to Kwanzaa or Winter Solstice. 

We all come from a variety of backgrounds, experiences and lifestyles — and differences can be more than cultural and religious markers. 

For instance, you might have a colleague who has recently lost a partner (widowed, divorced or otherwise) who feels awkward if invitations are for team members and significant others. Statistically speaking, several of us will work alongside people who identify as part of the LGBTQ+ community — some of whom might not be “out” at work. 

There could be others who are sober or, perhaps, struggling with sobriety and not interested in open bars and a big emphasis on drinking.

More and more these days, workplaces employ people of diverse abilities. Your team members may be deaf or hard of hearing, on the autism spectrum or use a wheelchair or other support for mobility.  

Parents of young children have different demands on them, as do those who are caring for aging family members (or the “sandwich generation” folks who are caring for both!). 

Another consideration when we’re thinking of diversity is diet. You may have vegetarian or vegan colleagues as well as those who don’t eat pork or shellfish for religious or cultural reasons. Then there are also allergies to things like gluten, peanuts or tree nuts.

At this point, you might be thinking, “it’s just not worth it — I can’t satisfy everyone!”

Take the opportunity to unite instead of divide

When leaders understand the diverse make-up of their team members, they can plan accordingly so that everyone feels comfortable celebrating together.

It helps to focus on celebrating what you have in common rather than concentrating on the differences. (And remember — there are other simple ways to thank your team — you can think beyond a party!)

If you try to incorporate some religious or cultural celebrations into an event (for instance, decorating with a Menorah and a Kwanzaa kinara with seven candles on either side of Christmas tree), odds are you’ll leave someone feeling left out or disgruntled.

Instead, focus on your work together during the last 12 months. You’ve made it through another calendar year!

Here are some ideas to make your holiday gatherings and other celebrations inclusive:

  • Pick a neutral theme instead of tying your celebration to a particular holiday tradition. Think snowflakes, pinecones and cedar or colour themes like black & white or blue & silver. Trust me: You can be festive and celebratory of “the season” without pulling out the Santa decorations!
  • How do you think your team members would like to celebrate? Maybe everyone would like a late night and fancy dinner, but is it possible they’d rather have a family-friendly event during the day or a long lunch? Sometimes after work soirees or group activities are a hit. The best parties are going to have a broad appeal, so ask your team. If everyone is indicating they’re already busy, perhaps opt to hold a celebration in the New Year or on your company’s anniversary date.
  • Parents or caregivers on your team? You might want to offer money for a babysitter or caregiver to make it less stressful for team members to attend (not just cab fare home!).
  • Not everyone wants to drink and party. Many cultures are uncomfortable with alcohol and some team members may choose not to drink for other reasons. Choose a venue that allows everyone to feel comfortable and ensure that you word the invitation so that it’s clear this is not just a booze fest (for example, “Network & Chill” feels different than “Happy Hour”). Drinks menu? Offer non-alcoholic drinks that are fun and festive, too.
  • Instead of wording an invitation to include a “spouse” or “date,” invite your team members to bring a plus one. This way people won’t feel awkward if their guest is a good friend or family member other than a romantic partner — and no one feels obliged to explain the relationship when they RSVP!
  • Think about your menu. Your venue should ideally be able to offer vegetarian and non-vegetarian options (and many of those will also work for those who are gluten-free). Ask people to let you know about dietary needs or allergies when they RSVP so that you’re not taken by surprise.
  • Check that the venue is accessible to people who are differently-abled and perhaps easily accessible by transit — whatever things are important to your team members. You don’t want to be the leader who chooses an exclusive venue that is formal and difficult for people to get into when everyone wants something informal and relaxing.
  • Think about the soundtrack to your event. Plan for music that will provide the right ambience and allow for conversation. Too often, parties are drowned out by loud music and that doesn’t let people get to know each other. Consider something like big band, soft classical music or mellow contemporary music as a backdrop. If there’s dancing, make sure the DJ takes requests and can cater to diverse musical tastes.
  • When you, as a leader, speak at the event, focus on celebrating your team rather than the season. It’s easy to slip into the same-old, tried-and-true wishing you all a wonderful holiday season. Instead, talk about what great work everyone has accomplished in 365 days together — as a team. Talk about how proud you are to be a part of this team.  If the hours have been long, thank family, friends and loved ones who are in the room. This way your celebration will be part of building a company culture of growth and happiness (not just a party!).

Build respect among colleagues

Choices you make as a leader can help to strengthen the relationships of your team members. 

If you want to have an inclusive workplace, model this by making decisions that show you’ve thought about your team members individually and collectively.

This means remembering to consider special dates or occasions that your team members may be observing. You don’t want to offer to take your team for a huge lunch when someone on your team is fasting for Ramadan or Advent. 

If someone asks for time off for a religious occasion or family obligation, honour that. Meetings and important deadlines can be set accordingly. This is when floating holidays are a real incentive for diverse workplaces.

Encourage your team to share their heritage if they want to bring food to share or talk about their celebrations. That company calendar? Include multi-cultural events and important dates for diverse backgrounds so that people are aware of what’s important outside of what they see as important.

Be sensitive to what’s important to your team members and what demands or obligations they may have outside the office. Again, this is bigger than party planning; it’s about ways you retain your top talent.

Coach’s Questions

Has how you look at diversity changed over time? What could you do better to make your celebrations more inclusive? What would you like to change with work celebrations? How can you take all this into consideration without making it a chore?

Building a Company Culture of Growth and Happiness

Recently one of our CEO clients was telling me about the important project his leadership team had completed. It was almost miraculous in that they brought it in on time and on budget – though you can probably guess it was grueling and draining for everyone involved.

I asked the CEO what they did to celebrate, and he paused before saying, “Well, I thanked everyone for their hard work and praised them around the leadership table for their contributions…” As we sat for a moment longer, he said, “Other than that, we all got back to work – it’s a busy time for us.”

I’ll bet that sounds like a familiar company culture to many of us. Hard workers keep working hard, one success has to lead to another, etcetera.

That same CEO had, a few weeks earlier, shared with me his frustration that, “folks don’t seem to really appreciate it here. We seem to have this culture of exhaustion and frustration. People are at each other constantly.”

Celebration at work can go a long way to building a company culture that thrives, retaining the talented employees and growing success. So, with all the effort we put into our jobs, why don’t we celebrate more of what we do? Time and money are the most oft-cited answers. Sometimes it’s also a correlation with what we feel we’re already doing (“I pay people well, why do we have to celebrate, too?!”).

Create a company culture that celebrates

Survey says you’ve got to show more than the money

When we ask folks, “When you think about your entire career, and you focus on the job you loved the most, what was it you loved?” the answers we get aren’t about money. In fact, almost no one says the best job they ever had was the best because of the pay. Instead we hear that people loved a workplace where they: 

  • had autonomy
  • felt appreciated
  • were recognized for their efforts
  • felt the company values aligned with their own
  • were on a team that wanted to win together
  • felt the goals were clear

Now, consider a celebration of the people who made a company success possible. How many of those positives might we reinforce with a company culture that celebrates hard work and dedication?

I imagine some of you are thinking, sure, that would be nice but I have time and/or money constraints. 

Here’s how to start honoring successes and the toil needed to get there, without taking too much time away from work or blowing your budget:

Celebrate the small wins
You don’t need to book a hall, a caterer and a band to celebrate! Celebrating on a small scale can be very meaningful and motivating for everyone. Got a new client this week?

Seeing good numbers this month? Buy a box of doughnuts or cupcakes and gather everyone around for a quick coffee break this morning. Up till the wee hours getting a presentation together and thrilled the hard work paid off after a great meeting? Thank everyone and suggest you start the next day a little bit later than you normally would (and don’t forget the pastries!). Has the team salvaged a client relationship that was tanking? Thank them at the next team meeting (and maybe provide some cookies to go with that afternoon coffee break!).

Before you start singling out team members with flashy thanks in front of the group, just remember that you may have to cater your communication style to be effective! Depending on personality style, some people like a big public thank you and others flourish when it’s a more private expression of gratitude or a group thank you.

Celebrate often
Doing anything often helps make it habitual – and that includes recognizing effort and success. If you want to create a company culture of growth and happiness, you have to start celebrating together. Check out our 10 simple ways to thank your team during the holiday season and be prepared to do so year-round.

Does it feel like you just celebrated something and you’re not keen to celebrate again so soon? Celebrate again. If you’re not used to it, building the habit is going to require you to celebrate things more often than feels “natural” because right now the company culture’s “natural” is not celebrating at all.

Tie the celebrations to your values
Does your organization have values it lives by? Have you looked at them lately? (We’ve discussed before why it’s important that your organization’s values and vision line up.) Walk the talk by tying your celebrations to the values on that poster in the boardroom.

So if your company says: “We value diversity” then celebrate someone having the courage to share a different point of view on how to tackle a project or working hard to bridge a cultural gap with an international client.

If your organization says: “We value our customers” then celebrate a thank you letter received from a customer, etcetera.

Being able to tie celebrations to your organization’s values is especially important if you want to foster those values. When you recognize folks for things they do that align to the company values, you reinforce those values and actions.

Systematize celebration
Another way to make celebrating more of a habit (and thus a part of your company culture) is to assign a budget (even if it’s a very modest budget!) and put key employees in charge of the festivities.

Don’t force this on the accountant who thinks it’s a waste of time. Instead, take a look around the next cupcake and coffee gathering. Who is really enjoying it? Who thanks you for the treat? Those are the folks who like to celebrate and might be happy to take it on.

Be careful not to delegate and run! Instead, ask them to take on ownership, but be sure to encourage them, suggest things to them that have happened that can be celebrated and show that you’re supportive of their extra efforts.

Start celebrating NOW
Like so many good ideas, this idea of building a company culture of growth and gratitude is only as good as its execution. Letting this good idea linger isn’t going to change the company culture. Carpe diem

Coach’s Questions

When was the last time you celebrated success and hard work with your team? How can you make celebrating part of your company culture? What can you celebrate this week?

Career move: Are you ready?

You know you’re ready for a change – a new challenge, perhaps a move up the career ladder or maybe a new location or industry.

Before you start putting out feelers, stop. (Yes – stop!) A little bit of groundwork can make a career move much more successful.


Take some time to review: 

  • What things do you love?
  • What don’t you love?  
  • What excites you?
  • What wears you down?  

Be completely honest! You’re not going to show this to anyone else. You don’t have to be seen to be somebody you’re not, nor do you have to try to please anyone else. This is a time for transparency and brutal honesty with yourself.  

Next, divide a notebook page in two columns and title one, “Love It” and the other, “Leave It”. At the end of each day, for a couple of weeks, go through your day and jot down things you did and things you avoided under either the “Love It” or “Leave It” column. 

After a couple weeks, you’ll have a pretty good list of things that drive you and things that wear you down.  (You don’t have to put everything on the lists – but if it remotely charges you up, put it under “Love It” and if it remotely bothers you or wears you down, toss it under “Leave It.”) 

We’ve also created a downloadable worksheet

Depending on the rhythm of your annual work cycle, at the end of the couple of weeks you may need to look ahead and think about what’s coming up. Consider whether you:

  • Love the year-end financial stuff? Add that to the list.
  • Love that you get four weeks of vacation? Add that to the list. 
  • Dread having to write the annual staff performance reviews? Add it to the list.
  • Know that you need an annual salary of $X? Add what you need to the lists as well – bonus, overtime, company car, expense account – just remember to differentiate between a want (would be nice to have) and a need (must have).

Think about what else you love in life. Perhaps these other things don’t immediately or obviously translate to a career move but then think about WHY you love them. Does the why translate? 

For example: 

I love being on the board of XYZ Non-profit because my role lets me see the big picture.

I like volunteering at the food bank because I can see the effect we have on people 

I like coaching sports because I like seeing the outcome of things.

I like having dinner with my kids every night.

Give some thought to what your “ideal” career move looks like and write it down. Read it a day or two later and edit it based on your gut reaction. 

So, a draft might read something like:

I want a role that lets me see a big picture – so something more tactical or strategic, where I can see an outcome for people directly. I enjoy sales but not the daily financial pressure to deliver, deliver, deliver.

When you’re thinking about your ideal, forget about “forever” and focus on the next few years. What would be ideal for now? Some of us of a certain age tend to look at career moves as rare and all-defining when, in fact, it could be an interesting step to a future opportunity.

I know that many of us think only of moving UP the corporate ladder, but there are times when a lateral career move makes sense. While you’re looking for opportunities, weigh all your available options. 

Go through your address book, and list 20-30 people you would feel comfortable talking to about your desire for a career change. They do NOT have to be people in your preferred industry or people who hire others. Schedule a coffee talk or phone chat with at least 15 of those folks.  

The goal is going to be to share with them what you’re looking for and why. You want this conversation to spark them thinking about who they know who might know someone who could help you find a new career opportunity. You see, you’re expanding your network by starting with people you know. 

There’s a really good chance the next person to hire you isn’t already in your address book, but there’s a good chance they’re in the address book of someone you know. 

When you meet your contacts for coffee, bring your goal statement and be able to speak in detail about it. We’ve included room on the downloadable worksheet for this information too. 

Telling someone over coffee that you’re looking for a job doesn’t accomplish much. They hear you but don’t see a role for themselves.  

Be Clear

You’ll want to be clear on a couple of things:  

  • Tell them what are you looking for in a career move
  • Share with them what are you good at (see the lists you created) 
  • Ask them if they can help you find something – or if they could refer you to others who might have a connection to something interesting

What about your current employer? If you really love your current employer, but you’re just not loving your current role, putting the same strategy to work within your current organization can work well, too. 

Build a network internally and use the same techniques of figuring out what you like, what you’re good at and seeking out a new opportunity. 

If you’re looking outside your organization for a new career opportunity, give some thought to when you want to share this with your employer:

  • On the one hand, you may work in an organization that won’t take it well when you tell them, so you may need to delay until you have a solid offer. 
  • If you have a good employer, they may want you to stay and offer to work with you to figure out how to bring out your real strengths with new responsibilities.

If you don’t share the information right away, prepare a response in case word gets back to your boss or employer that you’re looking for work elsewhere. Outline why you’re looking and how you would like to contribute more. 

As you explore the possibilities for a career move, remember this is about finding a good fit  – the best fit. You’re courting and being courted to see what opportunities are out there and you might land something really exciting. It’s good practice to consider your next career move at least once a year. 

Keep your eyes wide open to the fact that maybe your current role or company might turn out to be your best option right now. If there is some part of your job that made you think you needed to move, then you can try to do something to improve that part (rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater as they say!). Often a damaged interpersonal relationship is the motivation to move to a new workplace, but changing your perspective could change your career.

Coach’s Questions

What are your feelings about a career move? What can you do this week to figure out your ideal career move? Are there opportunities that you know that others in your network might be interested in? 

How to disagree with your boss

I remember vividly as a young professional a time when I had a dissenting opinion about an important issue, but hesitated to offer it. 

The problem was that I didn’t feel encouraged to give an honest opinion if it conflicted (and it did!) with that of the people more senior to me at the time. The boss was defensive and took disagreement as some sort of insult or insubordination. And so, of course, he often heard what he wanted to hear, not what he needed to hear.

It’s not uncommon. We’ve had clients share with us that they don’t know why their team members won’t tell them the truthand others who struggle to be candid with their bosses or board members. 

If you’re the leader seeking good information to inform your decision-making, you can learn how good leaders handle honest feedback and criticism and strategies for making the best decisions.

When you’re on the other side of things and disagree with someone you report to, it can be challenging to figure out how you can share your opinion without watering it down (and without needing to duck and cover!). 

Disagree with your boss

Here’s how you can disagree with your boss with less worry about being blacklisted or fired:

  1. Line up those ducks of dissent beforehand.
    To be able to disagree, there has to be trust. Strong, respectful relationships allow people to contribute and communicate truth no matter where they are in the office hierarchy. This is why when we work with teams, we help them learn to build conflict (the good kind!) in the workplace.

    Instead of waiting for a time when you’re in a meeting and wonder whether you can share your thoughts freely, have that conversation with your boss when the stakes are low. Find out how your boss feels about dissenting opinions. How should your team handle and manage disagreements when the stakes are high? Having established ground rules about what healthy conflict looks like and how to encourage a culture that allows for healthy debate leads to better decisions and successful organizations.
  2. Read the situation and strategize.
    Timing, as they say, is everything. If you have established strong work relationships, sharing frankly with your boss is easier than it can be otherwise. Additionally, different personalities will take information better in different waysboth WHAT is delivered (facts and figures vs feelings) and HOW or WHEN it is shared (for example, in a group or privately).

    You might have very valuable insight for your boss, but it could be that if you share it in a public forum that boss will feel undermined and embarrassed. If this is the case, you’re better to ask to meet with your boss privately after the meeting (I have an idea to share with you offline about this situation. Do you have a minute to chat?)

    Perhaps it’s an important meeting with a variety of stakeholders present, but the tone is more one of brainstorming for solutions. In that case, contributing your radically different perspective in a respectful way (You know, it occurs to me that we could take a completely new approach and do this…) could be very well received.

    It can also be helpful to remember that other people are sharing ideas that they feel strongly about. Acknowledge the contributions you agree with (While I agree that X is an important consideration, and as you say that Y is another factor we need to keep in mind, I feel that….) and ask questions about the things you see as potential challenges or barriers (I hear what you’re saying about Z and that is valid, but I’m wondering about ABC. How would we handle ABC?).

    When you are able to stay collegial and collaborative, it helps to keep the focus on finding solutions rather than winning an argument. Asking questions is a way for you to ask for the opinions of someone more senior than you and offer your own reservations about a topic in a respectful way.
  3. Make your intention clear.
    Even if you have a good relationship with your boss and your work culture encourages healthy conflict and sharing of ideas, it helps to frame your contribution to the discussion in the right way.

    When there is tension or if things get heated, it’s human nature for people to feel defensive about their own positions. What is the goal that everyone hopes to achieve? Preface your idea as a way to meet that goal. This way, even if yours is a dissenting opinion, it doesn’t threaten the position that your boss cares about.

    “I know we all want to land this big account. I feel that we could still do this with what you’re suggesting but we need to consider X, Y, and Z before we tackle what you’re proposing.”

    It’s crucial that, especially when you don’t agree, you still show respect. A boss who feels you are respectfully sharing a counter-opinion will be much more likely to listen to understand (not just to respond!) than one who feels under attack.
  4. Ask for permission to speak freely.
    Some discussions in the workplace are much more delicate to navigate than others. It could be that there is a decision to be made around a disciplinary matter or an ethical decision.

    These are times when even if you’ve earned trust, it’s good to not only make your intent clear, but to ask for permission to share your thoughts honestly as a sign of respect.

    “I have some ideas about this, but I don’t want you to think I’m trying to undermine your position. I don’t feel right staying silent about this either because it’s crucial we make the best decision for the company. May I offer my opinion for you to consider?”

    When you negotiate the terms of sharing your truth, it’s less likely that your boss will mistakenly take your dissenting opinions as disrespectful or threatening.

In a perfect world, of course, your boss would love your ideas and take your opinions into consideration. If this is not the case, you need to respect the final decision and fully get behind it — that means doing whatever you need to do to make it successful (and not saying I told you so if down the road it turns out you were right!).

The good thing is that when you are able to disagree with your boss or the board and have your say, you’ll never regret that you didn’t say anything that could have changed the outcome. Not only that, but your boss will know that you can be counted on to say what you think courteously and respectfully.

Coach’s Questions

Have you ever disagreed with a boss or superior? What would you do differently to disagree with your boss now? Do you think your team members feel they can disagree with you? 

One key way to stay motivated

There are times a visual cue can help you stay motivated. 

Think of a thermometer graphic to show how much money has been raised for a fundraiser, the scoreboard and countdown clock during a basketball game, or filling a clear glass jar with change for a vacation fund. At a glance, you know the goal, the challenge, and progress.

It’s exciting and motivating all at once.

Many of our coaching clients confess they struggle to feel motivated and berate themselves for having a terrible character flaw but really procrastination or losing focus is part of being human. We all struggle with motivation from time to timeeven the most dedicated of leaders. 

And let’s face it: It can be a huge challenge to stay focused in an office full of distractions (let alone all the other distractions in life that can derail the best of plans). 

There is a quick, easy and inexpensive strategy that we can all use to stay on track and make progress with a goal: A simple visual cue.

How visual cues work

How simple? Paper clips work.

If you’ve ever read the New York Times bestseller Atomic Habits by James Clear, you’ll already know about the paper clip strategy and his theory that small changes can yield remarkable results (and if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend both this book and his blog about building good habits!). 

Essentially, the story Clear shares is that a young Canadian stockbroker named Trent Dyrsmid was working in sales at a bank in Abbotsford, BC in the early nineties. This rookie in the rural city about 45 minutes east of Vancouver, BC, had a goal to make 120 sales calls every day.

To stay motivated, Dyrsmid put 120 paper clips into a jar on his desk and another, empty, jar beside it. Each time he made a phone call, Dyrsmid moved a paper clip to the empty jar – and he didn’t stop until all 120 had been moved. 

The paper clips were a visual reminder of his goal and tracked his progress. Seeing them all moved from one jar to the other showed that he had met his daily goal. 

This simple habit worked and in less than two years the young stockbroker was bringing $5 million to his bank and earning a good salary (and a six-figure offer from another company soon followed!).

Why does a visual cue like this work so well? 

As Clear explains, Dyrsmid’s paper clip strategy worked because it was a good habit that stuck. The visual cue reinforced the good habit. 

The difference between people at the top of their field and others often isn’t intelligence, ability or even luck – it is consistency of effort. They have good habits and keep pushing day after day instead of getting derailed by life and bogged down by procrastination.

A visual cue, says Clear, is an effective way to stay motivated because:

It’s an immediate reminder. When the young salesman got to his desk, those two jars and the 120 paper clips were waiting for him. This simple visual trigger reminded him to start making those calls – before getting distracted by reading emails, talking with coworkers or reading the news online. He didn’t forget his daily goal and the habit of moving the paper clips kept him focused day after day, week after week.

It’s satisfying. Moving the paper clips from one jar to the other and watching the pile grow was a clear indication of progress. Counting each and every call ensured he didn’t cheat and call it a day after a few successes or an hour of calls, which is why the 120 paper clips worked so much better than simply blocking off an hour in the morning and crossing “make sales calls” off on a to-do list.  

It’s motivating. The act of moving 120 paper clips over created visual evidence of meeting the goal, which in turn reinforced the good habit of making all 120 calls. This habit ensured that the young stockbroker completed the sales calls that would drive his success. 

I have to add that the other reason that a visual cue worked for Dyrsmid is because he set a performance goal that was SMART – specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. The visual cue of the paper clips helped him to stay on track.

Want to try using the paper clip strategy yourself?

First, you need to know which SMART goal a visual cue can help you achieve (you can use our ultimate goal setting worksheet to figure this out!). 

It could be that you have to make cold calls like the stockbroker in Clear’s book. Or it might be that you have to write a report and you break it down into three sections to tackle each day. Possibly you have to reply to X number of emails before noon to be at your most productive.

In your personal life, you might want to read a chapter of a leadership book, do 40 push-ups or eat three healthy meals a day. 

Whatever your goal, the key to an effective visual cue is to be able to measure your success. 

You might try moving paper clips (or marbles or stones) from one container to another. Or, you could move coins from one drawer to another or even stack them. Perhaps you put dots on the daily squares of your wall calendar. 

You’ll be on the right track as long as the visual cue:

  • Is meaningful for you and measures your progress
  • Is convenient and easy to incorporate into your daily routine
  • Is placed where you’re going to be reminded of this goal and work toward meeting it
  • Becomes part of your routine so that working toward your goal is a good habit

As American politician and Olympic medallist in track and field Jim Ruyn said: Motivation is what gets you started. Habit is what keeps you going. 

Coach’s Questions

When did you last struggle to stay motivated and on task? What goal could a visual cue help you to achieve right now? What about your team, could you use a visual cue to motivate your team members?

Managing Anger and Frustration in a Way that’s Helpful to Your Team

Your organization is pitching a big contract to a potentially huge client. Or, your government department is presenting a new approach to the Minister or a Cabinet Committee.

One of your team members is the principal on this particular topic and carries the ball – this team member is leading the presentation and fielding questions. Weeks of team effort are riding on them to get the deal done.

And they blow it. They drop the ball. They can’t answer a crucial question, or they have a weak response for a key concern. The result? Confidence is shaken among those making the decision and they decide to go a different way.

The team is upset, the person who was making the pitch is upset, and you as the leader are upset.

The whole team gets back to the office following this enormous loss. As the leader, should you: 

  1. Put on a fake smile, suppress frustration and not discuss the situation?
  2. Vent your frustration or anger?

Which is the better approach?

You may have chosen the first option and think others would agree with you. If you chose the second option, you might be thinking the same thing. 

So, we’ll call option (1) suppression. It’s something that a lot of folks do, especially in the workplace: they hide their feelings, pretend not to be upset, and avoid conversations where frustration and anger may arise. While it’s a common approach, it isn’t the best because it leads to a cascade of negative outcomes – for you it can lead to fewer close relationships (people never get to really know you and know what you care about) which means less social support, poor memory (you’re carrying around so much extra baggage, you can’t carry it all), anxiety, elevated blood pressure and, of course, ongoing hidden resentments.  It doesn’t stop there, your “suppressed” emotions still affect others – they pick up on the subtle cues and it can actually be more draining and stress-inducing on them than emotional expression.

Given the litany of problems that come from suppressing your emotions with the team, you might be inclined to think option (2), where you vent that frustration and anger, would be a good approach. Of course, doing that in the moment, or immediately following a crisis, might feel like a release for you or it might let you “get back to normal” quicker and not carry a grudge, but it affects your reputation as “quick to anger” and “explosive.” Not only that, venting also has lasting negative effects on the team – individual team members will have their confidence shaken, many will feel fearful or dejected and their performance going forward will be weakened knowing if they “mess up” they may face your wrath.

So, which is the better approach?

Neither, actually.

You see, there’s a third option beyond suppressing or venting feelings of anger and frustration.

Emotional Intelligence research demonstrates time and again that the leader’s ability to manage (not suppress) his or her emotions will significantly determine the team’s morale and motivation. And managing emotions means reappraising your emotions before reacting. Reappraising involves reminding yourself of the big picture:

“This is only one sale, there will be others”


“We can learn from this but we can’t change what is done; 

we need to look to the next opportunity.”

It might mean recognizing the principal salesperson is feeling shaken and unconfident and needs encouragement.

The key with reappraising is to take a moment, or two or more, to pause before reacting – but to be careful not to take too long. You don’t want to let a pause for reassessment turn into suppressing the feelings.

After reappraising, the leader might do something like this: call the team together and acknowledge the big feelings: we’re all feeling disappointed or frustrated or angry. The leader might emphasize that our success on the next bid, and the one after that, depends on everyone’s determination to support each other, to figure out what it takes to win next time and to support everyone who made an effort today.

A key role for a leader is to both manage and influence the emotional state of the people they lead. This is achieved by:

  • inspiring and instilling confidence in people, 
  • encouraging them to maintain motivation
  • helping them cope with difficulties to succeed in the goal. 

Effectively managing anger and frustration

To be effective at that, a leader has to effectively manage their own feelings. 

Studies show that leaders who can review their own feelings before showing them (note: not suppressing them!) help their followers manage their own responses to the same things. In one study, followers of leaders who suppressed their anger and frustration reported more negative attitudes toward the leader.

So how can you get better at reviewing and assessing if you’re not used to it?

  1. Practice seeing problems as challenges rather than threats. Focusing on how you can overcome the challenge rather than “react” to the threat builds resilience – in both you and your team. In our example that means turning the loss from a threat to your career or a threat to your reputation or success, to instead be a challenge to do better next time, or a challenge to fix a flub.
  2. Deep breathing. It may sound simple, but it isn’t simplistic – taking a moment to pause, and breathe, actually works wonders in letting your emotions relax and your brain time to focus for a bit. That “bit” is often all it takes to allow you to begin reassessing.
  3. Focus on the big picture and the longer term. How do we learn from today to make tomorrow even more successful than it would have been?
  4. Change the story you’re telling yourself.

    Change the story you’re telling yourself.


Imagine this situation: Someone is yelling at you in anger. It happened suddenly. You probably want to yell back or even lash out with something that’s critical of them. But what if I told you their mom died yesterday, or they’ve been in an ugly divorce case for months and this morning they lost custody of their kids or their workplace went out of business with no notice – leaving them with no job, no salary and no pension. 

Chances are, knowing that information, you might forgive the yelling. You might even respond to their anger with compassion. 

But what changed? The situation stayed exactly the same. They were yelling at you – but the story you’re telling yourself, the way you have filled in the blanks about WHY this is happening has changed. You’ve moved from taking this personally (making it about you and why they are being so awful to you) to being about them – “they must be having an awful day.”  You’ve moved from seeing a threat (“they’re an awful person”) to a challenge (“how can I help?”) Giving someone the benefit of the doubt is essentially changing your default view to something like, “they must be having a tough time.”

  1.     Ask yourself new questions to focus less on response and more on what could come of this, like, “what am I intended to learn here?” or “what can the team take away that will benefit them?”

Coach’s Questions

What has been your default response when you’re angry and frustrated? How has your reaction influenced your team’s response to a situation? What can you do to manage your feelings the next time you are angry or frustrated?

For the last several weeks we’ve been asking you to give us your requests for topics you want us to write about in the blog and boy, did you ever.  Thank you to everyone who gave us suggestions and entered our contest to win 6 of our favorite leadership books.
Keep following us on to see our articles inspired by your requests!
The winner of the grand prize is Marty Robinson of Medicine Hat, AB. Congratulations Marty!

7 Benefits of a Leadership Offsite

We’ve seen periods where our clients were big on over-the-top boondoggle getaways for the leadership team and times when they stopped all workshops and retreats for austerity reasons. That’s two ends of a spectrum and neither end is ideal for most organizations.  

Instead, somewhere in the middle – a getaway from the day-to-day challenges of the office without being too costly – brings a huge return on investment to most organizations if the time is well planned.

Why leadership offsite and why does it work?

An ideal leadership offsite will have an agenda that is focused on the big goals of the organization. Participants will work on big questions, talk about important ideas and work together to figure out a plan going forward. Or, there could be workshops on topics that will strengthen the group as a team — also helping to better achieve those big goals. 

Of course, some of the real benefits will be all the extra stuff that happens outside the agenda. 

What kind of extra benefits come from an offsite?

  1. Finding common purpose: When companies are planning their leadership offsite they seek to find “whole-organization” issues to work on instead of the “single department issues.” That’s great because it gives the team a chance to work together. While struggling to solve problems, folks will learn to work toward shared goals.
  2. Teambuilding: Connecting peers outside of work often means getting to know each other as people, as individuals and as humans outside of the work environment. And that goes a VERY long way to building trust  – and trusting each other, deeply, is at the foundation of moving from a GROUP to a TEAM. Strong work relationships are critical for success.
  3. Gaining perspective: Getting up from behind the boardroom table – literally getting a different point of view and walking away from the to-do list for a couple of days – gives people a chance to gain a new perspective on things. Many times different perspectives lead to new ideas and innovation.
  4. Overcoming fears: Participants get to explore new ideas and possibly share fears about the company and its direction that just don’t come up in task-related meetings.
  5. Building Skills: An offsite is a great time to bring in help to build skills in areas where individuals might be struggling. Maybe you help your leaders learn how to take a Coach Approach to Leadership to help grow the staff who report to them, or you help them have difficult conversations (we’d say help them have essential conversations) with each other. Perhaps you really want to take steps to build a truly cohesive and effective team. Think about the goals of your organization and what you need to build in your team to achieve them.
  6. Finding hidden talents: Changing the environment and making room for new perspectives often means participants start behaving differently and start showing new sides of themselves. This can open their eyes, and yours, to some talents they have that they aren’t using “back at the office.”
  7. Transforming from a leadership group to a leadership team: We often work with our client organizations to help them build their leadership team at offsite meetings. So that may seem odd – they’re a team but we help them be a team. You see, many, maybe even most, leadership teams aren’t really a team: They call themselves a team but they’re really just a group who meet once a week.

What’s the difference between a leadership group and a leadership team? 

A leadership group is a bunch of individuals, each quite likely highly talented in their field and successful in their careers who meet regularly. At those meetings, they offer up their expertise in their own area, they defend their budgets and their teams, they update the group on what they’re doing in their area and occasionally discuss issues with their colleagues at the table, when there are overlaps in their areas. 

  • They tend to “stay in their lane” and not challenge each other on the other’s area of expertise. 
  • They tend to be there as advocates of their own role and their own staff.  

In other words, the VP of Finance is there as the finance expert and to keep things on track financially, the VP of Sales is there to ensure the sales team is well supported and to make sure Sales keeps its position of importance in the company’s work, etcetera.

A leadership team has a shared stake in everything. While members of a cohesive and successful leadership team acknowledge each other’s expertise, that isn’t why they’re there. The VP of Finance is there to support the leadership team and to lead the company, the VP of Sales is there to support the leadership team and to lead the company, the VP of HR is there for the same reasons.  

  • They offer helpful suggestions to each other, regardless of their area of expertise.  
  • They challenge and ask questions of each other, regardless of their areas of expertise.  
  • They have built a level of trust with each other that allows them to do that and to know they’re doing it for the good of the company and the good of the team.  

On a leadership team, the VP of Finance knows when the VP of Sales is challenging her on a topic, it’s not to make himself look smarter than her, it’s not to build an empire in the Sales division and it’s not because he’s trying to protect his sales staff. He is doing it to see if he can help the VP of Finance make an even better decision for the good of the company.

Now that may seem like a fantasy world for some companies, but it isn’t. It’s the outcome of a group that consciously works to become a team. We regularly help leadership groups become cohesive leadership teams with our Five Behaviours programs.

Coach’s Questions

Do you think you have a leadership group or a leadership team? What can you do to become a stronger leadership team? When can you take your team for a leadership offsite and what would you like to work on?

Is there room for humor in executive leadership?

How often do you and your team laugh and joke at work? 

That might seem like a strange question, but humor at work can drive success in a variety of ways. Now, arguably some office cultures that are more open and creative are going to have very different examples of humor than perhaps an office with a more hierarchical workplace or very serious business mandate – but even a chuckle can be as important as laughing out loud.

Generally, people joke with people they are comfortable sharing experiences with (remember that one of the five behaviours of a cohesive team is trust!). Laughter and friendly banter are good signs for teamwork and productivity.

Skeptical? Medical schools are researching how humor affects health, psychology schools are looking into how humor is linked to mental health and wellbeing and elite business schools are investigating how humor helps with business success.

Humor helps

Consider that laughter:

  • Releases those feel-good endorphins
  • Lowers stress (and blood pressure!) and releases tension
  • Increases oxygen intake (which is good for your heart and muscles as well as your emotional well-being and focus)
  • Helps people cope with physical pain or feeling overwhelmed (the idea of the wisecracking cop or macabre-funny coroner is grounded in the reality that laughter helps us cope with painful situations)
  • Encourages a feeling of connection with others
  • Improves your mood and immunity
  • Boosts morale, creativity, and productivity

It’s easy to see how humor can really help to engage your team, encourage teamwork and motivate everyone when things are challenging. 

Humor and positivity can even help with corporate branding and engaging with customers (if you ever ordered from ThinkGeek before they were recently bought out, you may have laughed out loud like me at their cheeky customer emails from the ThinkGeek overlords and hilarious product descriptions). It’s why many big corporations pay big bucks for funny advertising and cleverly worded social media.

The trick is that humor is rather subjective and if you miss the mark, you risk having the opposite effect. Just like a good comedian, leaders need to read the room and know their audience.

A misplaced wisecrack or bad joke could risk the respect of your team members, offend people or even demotivate. I’m thinking of the many wince-worthy and cringe-inducing moments with Michael Scott, the Regional Manager on NBC’s The Office or David Brent if you’re a fan of the British original! The fictional character of the cringy boss was so funny because those moments sadly ring so true.

You can’t force funny. But it could be valuable to look for ways to encourage laughter and levity in the workplace.

Humor in leadership

Here’s what we do know about ways to use humor as a leader:

  • To make a joke and encourage a jovial atmosphere, you have to be able to take a joke
  • Positive, uplifting humor is far more powerful than negative (laughing WITH people is completely different than laughing AT them!)
  • The best jokes or funny moments are authentic and natural
  • It’s best to be careful not to cross any lines providing a harassment-free workplace includes not making team members uncomfortable with jokes that are offensive to, say, women or minorities or members of the LGBTQ+ community 
  • A bit of self-deprecating humor is funny, but research by a doctoral student at the London Business School shows employees have less respect for leaders who constantly make fun of themselves
  • Maintaining professionalism doesn’t mean your humor has to be PG, but tasteful will never be a bad choice (think: would I want this moment on YouTube or repeated to others outside this circle?)
  • There are different kinds of funny – find your own style (clever, witty, wry, teasing or haha)

If you’re not sure if people are laughing to be polite, watch their eyes. Someone who is genuinely amused will have a “Duchenne smile” (named for Guillaume Duchenne, a 19th Century French physician who studied facial expressions) with not just a smile at the mouth but crinkles around the eyes. Most of us can fake the smile but not the mirth in the eyes.

Opportunities to use humor

As leaders, we can look for opportunities to use humor to advantage. There are many opportunities, even when you’re staring down a deadline or wrestling with a never-ending project. Here are some ideas:

  • Poking fun at systems or something that everyone is worrying about
  • Inside jokes (preferably that are inside to everyone on the team) about shared experiences or relatable feelings
  • Laughing when you make a mistake (it puts everyone else at ease!)
  • Clever puns or retorts

There are several ways to actually set up occasions to encourage laughter. Consider things like:

Endorsing friendly wagers or office pools. I heard about one team comprised of Americans and Canadians, who had a bet for the winning US-Canada hockey game where the losing side had to create a top-10 list of why the other nation’s hockey team is better (the US won that year and the Canadians cleverly had “Your Canadian-born players are better than our Canadian-born players” as number one!). If sports aren’t your thing it could be predicting who will win something else — maybe Dancing with the Stars.

Picking moments for silly contests. You could challenge your marketing team to scoring the most baskets with crumpled paper balls before a brainstorming session or see if everyone will post a baby photo in the break room (whoever gets the top score on who’s who wins lunch). When the boss is able to smile and relax, the rest of the team feels more at ease and comfortable laughing. 

Holding social events and off-site activities. No matter what you do – see a ball game, go skating or airsofting, see who can get out of escape rooms the fastest – being together in a more relaxed environment is conducive to fun and laughter. Plus, funny and zany memories offer laughs to share for months to come. This can be especially helpful if the culture of your workplace is serious and not fun.  If you run a funeral home, it’ll be best to take the team out for your jokes and laughter!

Post a funny meme or comic in the staff break room or on your office board. Have a contest for the funniest office meme. I knew a quality leader who labeled his inbox, “The hip, the happening, the INBOX” just because and it was so ridiculous in an otherwise serious place that it always made people smile. Simply attaching a funny, apropos comic (thank you, Dilbert!) or gif (thank you, The Office!) to an email and sending it to your team underscores that you’re in it together – and might make them chuckle.

Use humor in presentations or speeches. You don’t have to write your own material! Just find a good joke or anecdote and attribute it to the creator. Find one-liners you’re comfortable using and try them out. I remember one veteran CEO who was known to be uncomfortable speaking in public being asked out of the blue to give a speech and he stood in front of everyone, paused with a bemused smile at the awkward silence and said, “I can hardly wait to hear what I have to say!” Everyone roared. Laughing puts everyone at ease and encourages dialogue.

Not too long ago we talked about ways to develop your executive presence. Highly effective leaders have certain qualities that people gravitate toward, including confidence, charisma, and compassion. 

When leaders use humor effectively, they’re seen as not only likable but also intelligent and more trustworthy. It’s emotional intelligence that differentiates great leaders from the rest.

And so it’s not surprising that a leader who is able to use natural, off-the-cuff humor to put people at ease and connect with them is going to be someone that people want to work alongside. Someone who smiles and can be genuinely funny (or appreciate humor and creativity!) is much more human and approachable – and even if it’s not a natural strength, you can work on it.

Coach’s Questions

Can you think of times you’ve seen executive leadership use humor effectively? How do you use humor at work? What could you do more often or differently?

Learn from (and Celebrate) Failures

Failing might be embarrassing. It might be painful financially or it could make you worry about your reputation. But you know what? Every failure is an opportunity to learn.

If we – and our teams – don’t experience failure, we might not push ourselves to do better. Feeling comfortable almost never gives us an edge on the competition.

Think about a few times in your career or personal life when you attempted something and failed. Grab a piece of paper and jot those failures down on the left side. Then, on the right side, make a point-form list of what you did to recover from each failure or how you overcame the challenges.

Whether it was work-related or personal, I suspect many of those failures gave you:

  •         A new perspective and quite likely a win
  •         Lessons in managing adversity
  •         An opportunity to reflect and figure out what you could have done differently
  •         Ideas about how to avoid this situation in the future
  •         Resolve 

Many times, our coaching clients discover that it’s their failures – not their successes – that made them stronger leaders.

Similarly, we can learn a lot about other people by asking about their experiences with failure.

In fact, any time that you’re interviewing potential new hires or consultants – or maybe considering which team member to choose for a particular project or promotion – asking candidates to tell you about two or three times they’ve failed and what they did to overcome the failures can be very illuminating.

Learn from failures

Why should we consider failure instead of just focusing on past successes? Because we learn about other people (and ourselves) by how they (or we) have coped with failure. The thing is, failing isn’t evidence of weakness or incompetence. It’s evidence of trying.

By reflecting on failure, we can learn if someone:

  •         Has the courage to take risks (or is averse to risk-taking)
  •         Learns from mistakes (or is too proud to admit them)
  •         Stretches to learn and grow (or stays safely stagnant)
  •         Takes accountability and actively seeks solutions (or shifts blame)
  •         Can accept defeat (or lives in denial)
  •         Is resilient and seeks new avenues (or doesn’t try because of a fear of failure)

You see, the way folks handle failure demonstrates their character. Whether people are willing to risk failing is important (we recently discussed reasons why it’s important for leaders to find the emotional courage to make mistakes and learn from them).

How leaders, in particular, view failure has implications for businesses and staff. Consider that:

American businessman and inventor Thomas Edison (whose many inventions included the incandescent electric lightbulb, phonograph and motion picture camera) didn’t let failures stop him from continuing his work, saying famously: “I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

French fashion designer and businesswoman Coco Chanel saw value in failure, saying: “Strength is built by one’s failures, not by one’s successes.”

Finding the courage to risk failure served Thomas J. Watson, the chair and CEO of International Business Machines (IBM) from 1914 to 1956, well. He advised: “If you want to increase your success rate, double your failure rate.”

Internationally successful author, screenwriter, and producer J.K. Rowling has said: “It is impossible to live without failing at something, unless you live so cautiously that you might as well not have lived at all – in which case, you fail by default.”

I find it interesting that these highly successful people – from diverse industries, different cities and even different time periods – don’t seem afraid or ashamed of failure. Instead we see from their statements that:

  •         Taking risks means accepting there will be some failure
  •         Failures are learning opportunities
  •         Perseverance is critical
  •         Fear of failing can limit the potential for success

As leaders, we need to remember that how we react to failure (for ourselves and for our teams) can significantly affect the performance of our team members.

Celebrate your failure

We have to learn from and even sometimes celebrate (yes, celebrate!) failure. Here’s how:

Keep the focus on learning. If you focus on the failure and it’s punitive, no one will want to admit they made a mistake. They will either stop trying new things or start hiding the failures. Instead, take opportunities to debrief and discuss what went wrong. This is the opportunity to look for ways to improve the process (with metrics!), examine lessons learned and brainstorm other solutions. “What can we learn from this” is far more powerful than “what did you do wrong?”

Build the framework. If you’re thinking right about now, “I get it but there’s no way I want my team going off in all directions on ill-thought boondoggles,” then build the framework for your team of what is an acceptable risk of failure. Help define the parameters. When is complete failure okay, or even useful, in learning something new? When is some failure okay if there’s a mitigation plan in place? When are you unwilling to accept any attempts to improve (and thus, no acceptance of failure)? If you can define what fits into each category, and then live up to it in how you react to failure, your staff will learn to try.

Feel the feelings. Failing is hard. We’re not trying to pretend it’s okay – or that there shouldn’t be accountability. Certainly, some organizations would rather ignore or punish failure than manage it, but rallying everyone to get back up after being knocked down and focusing on learning from mistakes can make for a stronger and more determined comeback.

Walk the talk. Make sure that positive performance reviews and raises or bonuses are not all tied to successes only. If you want to foster an environment of learning, growth, and innovation, your team has to see that everyone is evaluated for wise effort and not just successful results. Celebrating aspects of failed projects (“we learned some valuable lessons here” or “because of this project we knew to focus on this aspect”) will reinforce the idea of learning and improving.

Try new approaches. Some tech companies give their staff time to work on their own ideas and experiments for new products or services for the company. Other corporations take a cold case approach to failures and encourage staff to revisit them from time to time to see if they come up with solutions or new ideas.

Encourage discussion. When everyone on your team feels it is safe to raise concerns and admit there are problems, it’s easier to give up on something that isn’t working and change direction. There are ways to build a stronger team so that everyone feels comfortable innovating, being accountable and taking risks. An environment that encourages agile thinking can save time, money and resources – and pave the way for innovation and (you guessed it!) success.

Coach’s Questions

How have you reacted to failures in the past for yourself? For your staff? Will your approach to failure change now? What can you do to encourage your team members to take measured risks, accept failures and learn from them?