Tanveer Naseer - Leadership Coach, Speaker and Writer
Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development.
The following is a guest piece by Stanford professor Dr. Leah Weiss.
Modern leadership training is being taken over by a clever but misguided trend. One that’s filled with yoga rooms and entertainment-infused buffet lunches. It’s a train that many corporations are jumping onto, but the intent is often confused and therefore the execution is weak.
The idea that organizations will successfully attract the best talent by peddling a laid-back compassionate culture is bound to fail. It will fail because it leaves the heavy lifting required in actually impactful leadership cultivation relegated to the role of little more than an afterthought.
Granted, some cultures actually get it right (Zappos is a great example) but most are still getting it very, very, wrong. Injecting a dose of compassion into a toxic or muddled corporate culture isn’t going to through entertainment and perks is bound to fail. That’s because strong leadership and a healthy culture requires an integrated approach to compassion – it can’t be a half-assed afterthought.
Real compassion in the context of leadership and corporate culture comes down to seeking, hiring, and developing leaders that earnestly give a damn about colleagues, communities, the larger world. It is doable – and here’s how to make it happen.
1. Hire With Intent Hiring based on technical (or “hard”) skills is important, but equally as important is recognizing a candidate’s soft skills. Things like creativity, the ability to problem solve, demonstrated intellectual humility, and compassion must be at the top of the list next to any software or degreed accolades. Soft skills are trickier to recognize but can be seen by asking candidates to problem-solve on the spot (much in the way that Google does with its hiring methods).
2. Make Role and Purpose Clear A recent study found that 64% of people have no idea what their job is. Instead of hiring leadership based on recommendations and resumes, hire based on a clear understanding of what a person’s role is. Ask leaders to detail what their tasks will be, what they should commit to, and point out how they fit into a company’s culture.
Further, make sure that leaders understand the larger puzzle. Each person within an organization has a specific purpose and fulfills a specific piece of the larger puzzle. Leaders must understand how everyone within a team fits and be able to explain that precise piece to employees at every turn. The blind leading the blind is a recipe for disaster.
Employees that enjoy being at work – and included in a culture built on compassion – are more productive and efficient. Constructing a culture with compassion at its core begins with leadership training and this can’t be stressed enough.
Leaders must first learn self-compassion and then learn how to effectively spread those same considerations to employees. The other interesting thing about compassion training is that it’s contagious – it begins with leadership and spreads rapidly through a culture resulting in a happier and more productive company.
4. Build A Safe Place The workplace should be a safe place. It should be an environment where employees feel okay to share things like feelings and speak up when something is bothersome, invasive, or misunderstood. Safe corporate culture doesn’t have to come with cuddle rooms, but it does have to come with team meetings that are open and honest.
Leadership training should be based on the development of a safe space. Employees, as well as leaders, should be able to speak up at any turn and not feel unsafe, judged, or fearful.
5. Fix a Broken Culture A culture that has run rampant for too long might seem unfixable, but even disastrous culture stories make great lessons. It is possible to turn a toxic culture around by reframing leadership education and goals and by hiring new leaders that embody soft skills. This begins with training and development that is rooted in the tenants of purpose, mindfulness, and compassion.
In an ideal world, toxic cultures can be turned around with existing leadership intact through compassion training. But we can’t be blind idealists. Firing leadership across the board isn’t the answer though some leaders may not adjust to new cultural concepts. A mix of old and new is often the hiring formula required to move away from culture of fear and uncertainty towards a culture of care.
Most people assume that successful entrepreneurs are created solely based on how innovative and groundbreaking their new idea is. We fantasize about coming up with that invention or idea that solves a gargantuan problem for a lot of people and therefore is the main driver that propels businesses to be wildly successful.
It might amaze many people to know that successful entrepreneurs are rarely building on new ideas or disrupting existing industries. In fact, this is almost never the case.
While this might be a letdown for the budding inventor, this is great news for aspiring entrepreneurs to know that there are ways, right now, to help their businesses succeed without being hit on the head by an apple and coming up with a new scientific theory.
Let’s look into the history of some household entrepreneurs and their industries. Ford did not think up the combustion engine or automobiles, Edison did not think up incandescent light bulbs, Larry Page did not think up search engines. Disney didn’t think up animated films, or even amusement parks.
These great entrepreneurs did not wake up out of a deep sleep and begin drawing the next big thing. No, they succeeded by working tirelessly to tune existing ideas and inventions in ways that excited vast numbers of new consumers.
Ideas are not the keys to entrepreneurial success. Even a once in a lifetime, an unprecedented, world-changing, patent-protected new idea won’t guarantee success. Business history is littered with brilliant new ideas and inventions that were not able to sustain themselves on their novelty or necessity alone and were therefore dismal failures.
Poor leadership and poor execution can sink even the greatest ideas.
Do you find that hard to believe? Well, think about this. No new idea comes formed ready for delivery to the market. The more unique the idea, the less any human is able to predict or assess all the complexities of how supply and demand will evolve. Nobody has ever shown they have infallible, let alone reliable, instincts for anticipating how customers and markets receive new ideas. Sure, you can do a ton of research to forecast how customers and suppliers will react to an incremental change to an existing product or service.
The reason new ideas are not a slam dunk success story is because you still have to package, market and sell them. This is where some people make a huge mistake. They rest in the novelty of the idea alone. People who are building on old ideas already know they have to go into it ready to convince their potential customers why they are the best.
Whether new or old ideas, all successful entrepreneurs ultimately operate under the same guiding principle: They make their customers so happy that they gladly give them money in return.
Can it really be that simple? Well, that’s what history has shown.
Look at your own buying preferences.
Have you ever paid a few dollars more for something to get better quality or to have a better experience?
Ever gone to the “other guy”, who charges a little extra but provides excellent customer service?
Do you spend extra money on a movie ticket because the chairs are more comfortable or the theater cleaner or the popcorn better than at the $1 theater?
As customers ourselves, we will pay to control our outcome. One horrific experience with a product or transaction can make many people take their money elsewhere. On the other hand, we will throw our money at things that have delivered for us in the past.
Though our businesses and products have gotten more complicated over the last hundred or so years, the customer’s basic desire to have a good experience and be satisfied have not.
Business transactions boil down to three essential truths. If you are in business yourself, these are the three most important focal points for your business experience.
First, is the earliest and most basic form of all entrepreneurship—trade. “I will give you the fur from the antelope I killed (my product) in return for you giving me a basket full of grain (your currency).” The antelope fur will make one person happy, while the other person will be happier with the basket of grain. Trade is at the core of the entrepreneurial transaction, whether you’re trading real estate, products, or services.
Second, this unifying principle of entrepreneurship conveys an essential insight: emotions drive all actions, including the actions required to complete a transaction. Clearly, then, the positive emotions associated with delivering a product or service must be big enough to swamp the negative emotions associated with handing over money.
Entrepreneurs who overlook or forget this principle become frustrated and distracted when somebody doesn’t buy their product or service, even though they said they liked it. A person who likes something that you do or make may not like it enough to actually want to part with their money to buy it. Building a product or service to be more positively emotive will increase the chances people will want to pay real money for it.
Third, understanding the emotional state of your potential customer pre- and post-sale is critical. The jargon of value propositions causes many businesses and entrepreneurs to neglect monitoring or measuring the emotive responses of customers once they have received the product or service.
Our prehistoric entrepreneur could see that antelope fur kept his customer warm in the winter and therefore knew he could barter away the furs of all the antelope he could kill. A modern developer of Android apps has a much harder time knowing whether his or her app actually made the person who downloaded it happy enough to recommend it to others so that her business can grow and prosper. Most don’t even care to find out—and most app developers fail.
Further, to sell a product or service to a business, you usually have to make many people simultaneously happy. And because business people may feel pressured in different ways at work and at home, making businesses happy enough to buy can be enormously challenging.
Entrepreneurs who cease to control or care about how they deliver happiness will ultimately fail. And when you cease to control or care about being rewarded for delivering ever more happiness to ever more customers, it’s time to sell or retire.
Entrepreneurship has not changed. Often, today’s more complex entrepreneurship terminology—phrases like “value proposition” and “product market fit”—can obscure what it has always been about. Students and other aspiring entrepreneurs I counsel get distracted by such terms, particularly when these terms are introduced before the aspiring entrepreneur knows what they want to do. But aspiring entrepreneurs know intuitively how to answer when I ask, “What can you do to make some group of people so happy that they’ll give you lots of money?”
Derek Lidow is the former CEO of International Rectifier and the founder of iSuppli, a leading market research firm, which he sold in 2010 for $100 million to global information leader IHS.
The following is a guest piece by Marcella Bremer.
A CEO invited a group of people to a meeting who were at two different levels of the corporation. He asked a question and then went around the table in an orderly fashion getting input from the attendees. When he got to one of the lower level attendees, he said: “Sorry, I just want to hear from (the higher level) folks” and moved on.
Is that recognizable? Did you ever encounter such a situation? And what happened? In this case, nothing happened right away. There was an embarrassed silence, and then the meeting went on. The next higher-ranked person in line answered the question, and the moment passed.
The moment passed, but the culture didn’t. Right then and there, their current culture was reinforced. Culture happens everywhere people get together. It is represented and sustained in the actions and interaction patterns of a group. Culture happens where you are: right before your eyes if you know how to see.
In this current culture
The CEO got away with inviting people to listen, but not giving them a voice. The CEO communicated the message that the higher-ranking people were more important to listen to, and probably knew more about the topic.
The CEO communicated that lower-ranking folks should be in respectful listen-only mode. The CEO decided who got the right to speak and had decided who to invite to this topic.
All other people, higher and lower ranked, communicated that that was the normal order of things by not interfering. They accepted the CEO’s rules and proceeded with the meeting.
Before we blame the CEO as a bad, old-fashioned leader, let’s check again: all other people complied. Maybe it was unpleasant for some, but it was normal. Therefore, what happened was the culture.
What this culture valued was hierarchical power and the intrinsic belief that higher leaders know more than lower folks and therefore, the higher ranks lead. They valued compliance, agreeableness, and respect for positions.
The lower-ranked people might have accepted the culture in hopes of getting up on the ladder, someday. Or for fear of losing their jobs. Either way, they complied and sustained this culture.
Lofty or daily?
Could culture really be this concrete? So down-to-earth? Aren’t we supposed to formulate lofty core values, a vision and mission statement? Yes, we could, but if you need to change it is useful to make culture also operational and look at the daily (inter)actions.
Culture has had a bad press. Some companies “magically” have great cultures induced by heroic leaders and, thus, dominate their markets. But the majority of organizations seems to muddle through, now and then halfheartedly embarking on a culture project where they define their core values, vision, and mission statement – and then return to business as usual.
No wonder that culture seems elusive, and not something you can get a grip on. And even though Kotter and Heskett showed that culture could account for a 20-30% better overall performance than similar competitors, many leaders and organizations don’t see how to develop a culture that enhances performance.
But maybe you do now, after attending the meeting described above. Sure, culture is a complex concept that permeates everything in organizational life. The culture entails the identity, the purpose, the values and beliefs, the competencies, the actions and the outcomes of an organization.
It’s not quite as simple as “the way we do things around here,” but you can work on culture through the interactions in a group. Especially in meetings, the public theater stage of culture, interaction patterns are governed by the culture.
When the CEO got to one of the lower level attendees, he said: “Sorry, I just want to hear from (the higher level) folks.”
John was stunned, but he managed to say: “But why was I invited to this meeting if I can’t share my view?”
His heart was pounding. The others looked down on their papers in terror. No one had ever debated the CEO.
The CEO was taken aback for a second, then shouted: “Because you learn more when you listen! You’re a new manager, and you’d better fit in!” and he moved on.
Maybe John got away unscathed with his attempt to change the interaction pattern. But if he tried this a second time, he might not be so lucky. Maybe he’d have to start looking for another position.
In this changing culture
Or imagine this: The CEO shouted at John: “Because you learn more when you listen! You’re a new manager, and you’d better fit in!” and he wanted to move on.
But Mary, a higher-ranked leader, interrupted: “I agree that listening is valuable, but that goes for us as well. I’d be interested in hearing his view. Our middle managers might have interesting observations that could be valuable.”
Mary’s heart was pounding. She prayed that someone else would now back her up – or the CEO would turn on her.
“I think she has a point,” Steve said quickly. “Could we do a quick round and share everyone’s observations?”
Now here’s a group that’s trying to change the interaction pattern in this meeting. Mary and Steve wake from their bystander position and stand up for what they value: all attendees to a meeting have a voice.
They support John so that he won’t be the only culprit. They open the space by sharing their view on what happens, and they ask an open, possibility-oriented question: “Could we do a quick round and share everyone’s observations?”
Can you feel that it is harder now for the CEO to say no? There are two other people requesting to hear more views, meanwhile acknowledging that time may be limited and undermining the objection of “no time” by offering a quick round.
That’s what I call an Interaction Intervention.
An (Inter)action Intervention is what you say, ask or do to make the culture more positive, regardless of your position, without needing permission or resources. You “catch” and influence culture on a daily basis: where and when it happens. Not in abstract values, but in daily interactions. There’s a whole toolkit of Interaction Interventions, but one example is to ask more genuine questions. Or share positive observations.
With Interaction Interventions, you engage others and eventually develop a vibrant workplace where people have a positive mindset, collaborate, learn and take ownership, and are fueled by a shared purpose. Those are the ingredients of a positive culture, and they’re proven to boost productivity.
Of course, one different interaction in one meeting won’t change the culture right away. It doesn’t change what the whole organization values and believes overnight. But consistent Interaction Interventions can inspire more and more others to think and interact differently… and the ball starts rolling. And then, one day, the new has become normal.
“Could we do a quick round and share everyone’s observations?”
“No need to ask! I can’t wait to hear your solutions”, the CEO answered, leaning in.
You could tell he was open and interested. The energy in the room was palpable, as John began to share what he had observed…
If you influence one person, one interaction at a time, you contribute to a more positive organization. There’s no need to suffer or just survive at work to pay the bills. We can thrive at work and take that home!
What would you do if your role as a leader lead to the accidental death of one of your employees? It’s a scenario that, thankfully, most of us might never have to consider. And yet, for one leader, this was exactly a situation they faced in their career, and what might have been a career-ending moment turned into one that helped this leader to learn how we can achieve extraordinary outcomes simply by caring for those we lead.
The leader in question is Cort Dial, who is also the guest in this episode of my leadership podcast, “Leadership Biz Cafe”. Cort is a former manager and executive who now serves as President of Cort Dial Consulting, where he has worked with executives from Chevron, Intel, U.S. Borax, Disney and Apple.
A few weeks ago, I was the invited guest on CBC Radio’s Daybreak where I shared advice on how to successfully achieve your goals for this year. Now, the start of a new year is typically when most of us make efforts to create goals for what we’d like to achieve over the course of the next 12 months.
But setting goals for what we’d like to achieve is not something that’s exclusive to the start of a new year. Indeed, anytime is a good time to commit to achieving goals that will help you to succeed, prosper, and become a better you.
Of course, leaders are always creating, monitoring, adjusting, and evaluating goals they create for their employees and their organization well beyond the month of January. But how many of us are setting goals for ourselves? Of what we’d like to achieve both for ourselves as well as within ourselves to help those we lead be successful in their collective efforts?
The truth is it’s often easier to set organizational goals than personal leadership goals because with the latter, we’re pretty much dealing with ourselves in terms of making these changes for the better. And sometimes, that can be a pretty big obstacle to overcome.
Granted, there are numerous articles that have been written which share tips on how we can go about achieving our goals. That’s why during this interview on CBC Radio, I wanted to share some lesser known approaches that can amplify our efforts to succeed.
Given how well-received they were, I’d like to share these 3 uncommon strategies for how you can successfully achieve your goals so that, 11 months from now, you can be successful not just in terms of your organization’s goals, but in terms of your personal goals as well.
1. Be specific about the how and why, and not just the what When it comes to creating organizational goals, we all understand that you need to be specific not just about what you want to achieve, but how you’re going achieve this and why it matters in terms of your organization’s long term goals.
Unfortunately, when it comes to setting goals for ourselves, we tend to overlook this critical step in the process of successful goal attainment. It’s something I’ve seen time and time again in my work coaching leaders – although they have a very clear idea of what they want to achieve or of what they want to change, they lack an understanding for how they’ll go about accomplishing this goal, and in some cases, even why this is worth pursuing.
In fact, when I asked some leaders what achieving this goal would look and feel like, it was hard for them to articulate what living within this newly realized outcome would be like. For most, the only answer they could give is that it would allow them to have one less thing to do.
That’s why when it comes to setting goals for ourselves – either professionally or personally, it’s important to remember that to successfully achieve our goals, we need to have a clear understanding of both how to achieve it and why [Share on Twitter].
2. Solicit feedback to help inform goal setting and how to go forward When setting goals for ourselves, one thing all of us do is share with others what we’re hoping to achieve – the most common example of this, of course, is when we make those New Year’s resolutions.
Of course, there’s a benefit to sharing our goals with others in that this measure can fuel our sense of accountability because we’ve created this expectation in others that we’ll achieve this goal.
But as I pointed out during my interview on CBC Radio Daybreak, there’s an even better reason why you should talk to others about your goals. Namely, you should use these conversations as an opportunity to get feedback from those you trust and respect about how feasible these goals are. Of what are the real challenges you need to address, what actions and behaviours can help you achieve this target, as well as what things you’ll need to change to make this a reality.
By changing the conversation from one where we’re simply telling others about our goals, to asking for feedback on what we can do to be more successful in achieving them, we not only benefit from getting an outside perspective pointing out things we might not have considered, but the act of getting feedback from others makes them more invested in our success as well.
Remember, the value we create in giving others feedback is by helping them to grow into that better version of themselves [Share on Twitter].
Since sharing that study’s finding with my readers, I’ve been applying this technique to some of the more mundane tasks I have to do and I can honestly say, it really does help in sustaining my motivation over the long run.
Basically, as I start working my way through a particular task I don’t enjoy, I focus initially on how much of it I’ve completed. But around the half-way point, I shift my focus towards how much I have left to do. This simple shift in perception makes it easier to keep going on tasks I don’t enjoy because by changing how I measure my progress, I’m changing the kind of motivations I’m tapping into to help me keep at it to reach that proverbial finish line.
So take it not just from this study, but from my own experience that the key to sustainable motivation is not just how much progress we’ve made, but how we measure progress towards achieving our goals [Share on Twitter].
Of course, there are several other approaches that can help us to achieve our goals. But I wanted to share not only what I’ve found to be uncommon strategies, but shed some light on how to refine the way we go about pursuing goals for ourselves so that this year, all of us might savour greater success in what we hope to achieve in the weeks and months ahead.
Have you ever been in a meeting and wondered, “Why am I here?”
Or worse yet, have you ever lead a meeting while others quietly asked themselves, “Why am I here?”
If so, my guess is there was one thing missing that could have made a profound difference in how you or others felt about a meeting. Something that not only does away with the ambiguity of why this meeting is taking place but also increases connection, belonging and trust. With one change, you can transform meetings from having low-to-no engagement with ambiguous outcomes into fully transparent, productive collaborations.
How? Begin your next meeting with a statement of intent. It brings clarity to others about “where” you are coming from and what “game” you’re are willing to play. Sharing your intention allows for full transparency rather than leaving others guessing about what we are up to and “why we are here?”
When I suggest making a clear statement of intent, I don’t mean open your next meeting with, “Hello folks, today we are here to talk about the new product launch.” The CEO that I was coaching started a recent meeting that way. As you can guess it did little to move people to the edge of their seats.
When we explored what he was really trying to achieve he came up with, “Hello folks. My intention for today’s meeting is to discuss how we can meet the timeline of the product launch so that our customers are delighted with our new offerings, our designers know they can count on us to be fashion forward, and our competitors are blown away.”
Setting and sharing an intention that moves and uplifts all the key stakeholders, will move people closer to the edge of their seats. It creates a game that is worth playing and people can choose if that is the game they want to play.
Getting real work done during a meeting, and asking powerful questions that move the organization forward, needs the support that comes from setting a clear intention. Working on intention first allows you to begin to focus on who you are rather than what you do. An important distinction if you really want to have an impact.
The root of intent, intendere, from Latin, suggests “to stretch,” so when you make an intention, you are inviting yourself (and others) to stretch, grow and evolve toward something greater, to something purposeful.
Through my work with a number of companies, I have observed that in many cases there are cultural myths that prevent leaders from being clear about their intent. These include:
that leaders are the keepers of information,
knowledge is power,
that when it comes to getting ahead in the workplace, you should only share whatever knowledge is relevant to advancing your own position within the ranks.
I now know that is a bunch of poppycock.
The most successful leaders are:
generous with their knowledge,
and allow others to know what motivates them.
The astounding thing is, the clearer you are about your intention, the easier it is to accomplish what you are up to. By being clear about your intention, you allow others the opportunity to choose which game to participate in.
One huge advantage of being clear with your intent is that it crushes manipulation.
Manipulation and clear intent cannot exist in the same space.
In simple terms, manipulation is getting someone to do something without telling them what you are trying to get them to do. When you state your intent clearly and include the needs of others they have an opportunity to agree, disagree or counteroffer. They have a choice in the matter. The fact they have a choice will do wonders to increase connection, belonging and trust.
Powerful intent statements are clear, true, and complete. In order for others to understand your intention, though, you must avoid faking it by making something up that you think they would like to hear and omitting the truth, in part or in whole.
A hidden agenda will only create more space between you and others. On some level, they will know you’re holding back. Being clear opens up the possibility for the relationship to be transparent rather than opaque. Opaqueness continues the cycle of the “guessing game” and does not lead to connection.
So how do you get clear about your intent?
Getting clear with intention starts with reflection and asking yourself some questions about what you are aiming to achieve. When I cannot pinpoint my intention, or I need to do so quickly I use one of these three lenses to unlock it:
1. Future Focused Intent How do I want the world to exist? (“I want to work in a place in which we all get along and can still challenge each other to do our best work.”)
2. Outcome Focused Intent What result am I expecting from this meeting that would be useful for everyone involved? (“When this meeting is over, I want to understand the challenges you have been facing with this project and what we can do to make it work for all of us.”)
3. Commitment Focused Intent What promise have I made that I want to live fully in this moment? (“I love you; I want you to know that and want to understand what is getting in the way of us having a loving relationship.”)
Powerful intentions that enliven, rejuvenate, and exhilarate those around you tend to include “we” language. Using inclusive language will encourage you to be accountable for the whole by attending not just to your own needs, but to the needs of those around you. In this way, you will discourage yourself from holding an intention based on your own fear.
For example, a fear-based intention might be: “I want to fix my financial situation at work.” Flipping it into “we” language might be: “I intend to create a workplace that is supportive of all our needs, be it related to finances, health, or wellbeing.”
Action Step Before your next meeting or conversation, spend some time discovering what your intention is. You might ask yourself:
What are we aiming to achieve and what about that is important for everyone?
What is the overall picture that needs to be clear for us to fully leverage our time in this meeting?
How can I be accountable for the whole?
When you arrive at the meeting or start the conversation, state what your intention is. Destroy the assumption that they know what your intention is by simply saying it. Start the meeting by saying, “My intention for this meeting is____, so that___.”
If the focus becomes unclear, or if things get heated at any point during the meeting, pause the conversation and return to stating the intention (maybe try using different words this time). After applying these tactics in three separate meetings, reflect upon those meetings and conversations—see if you notice a difference in how they went compared to how they usually go.
Bonus Action Steps After you have practiced the above your could start your next meeting by inviting others to share their intention. You could start by saying, “Let’s get clear about our intent of this meeting. How will we know when this meeting is over that this our time has been well spent?” Let them co-create with you the game that you are playing together and agree to the rules of the game. You will surely notice an increase in connection, belonging and trust.
Creating an Intention for the New Year How many new year resolutions have you lost by the end of January? Another option is to create an intention for the year. Here are a few examples:
I intend to shift my conversations so that I’m not listening to win, to interject, or to prove something but to listen to understand.
I intend to create a peaceful community.
I intend to live in a world where everyone belongs.
Your statement should reflect what drives you, no matter what you are doing. Create a statement that you can lean on even when you are surprised at what shows up. You’ll be able to cultivate more serendipitous moments that benefit everyone.
The following is a guest piece by Jaime Anderson and Gabor George Burt.
In the beginning, there was humor and there was laughter. And it was good. But then, work became suffocatingly serious. Until now.
There’s an entire branch of social science that studies the psychological and physiological effects of humor and laughter on the brain and the immune system— it’s called gelotology.
Discoveries in this field have demonstrated that humor, laughter and fun releases physical and cognitive tension, which can lead to perceptual flexibility—a required component of creativity, ideation, and problem solving. So to get the most out of innovation processes such as design thinking, truly creative leaders also need to master the social dynamics of… [wait for the punchline}…humor!
But in the world of leadership, humor has typically been typecast as a manifestation of individual personalities and thereby a spontaneous and non-replicable activity. Much less attention has been given to the idea that humor might be acquired, learned and nurtured.
We have witnessed that skilled leaders, those we call “Stand-Up Strategists”, understand the utility of humor to boost innovation. In the words of IDEO founder Dave Kelly: “If you go into a culture and there’s a bunch of stiffs going around, I can guarantee they’re not likely to invent anything.”
Of course, humor can be highly subjective and what one person finds hilarious another person may not – so knowing your audience is paramount. It is therefore not surprising that business leaders who score high in the effective use of humor as a tool to boost innovation also tend to score high in emotional intelligence.
Creative leaders also have an intuitive appreciation of the four humor styles, and understand how these styles can be nurtured – or sometimes curtailed – in others.
The first three styles generally generate positive emotions, while the fourth is more typically associated with negative emotions and therefore has the most limited application with regard to enabling cognitive flexibility:
Sense of Fun involves a leader projecting an energetic, positive, playful vibe, and having a generally humorous outlook. It also involves the ability to appreciate the humor and playfulness of others.
Self-deprecating humor is the act of a leader to laugh at him/herself through self-belittlement, excessive modesty or downplaying own achievements. The purpose is to reduce power-distance.
Social humor is about boosting human interaction, and is used by a leader to enhance relationships. It typically involves jokes or stories shared as a tool to reduce interpersonal tension, increase sociability and promote openness.
Strong humor most often entails sarcasm or cynicism and is used by a leader as put-down, as a tool for hierarchical control, as a signal of dominance or to encourage conformity to group behavioral norms.
With his Groucho Marx moustache and quirky personality, IDEO’s Kelly is renowned for his sense of fun. Any visitor to an IDEO office immediately appreciates the importance of levity in the organization’s culture – indeed, having a sense of humor is a key criterion for recruitment into the firm.
Senior leaders – including Kelly himself – are sometimes self-deprecating, a cultural behavior that reduces hierarchy and power-distance and ensure that ideas come from all ranks.
But while self-deprecating humor can reduce social distance and make leaders seem more collaborative, participative and open to their employees, leaders shouldn’t overdo it. Studies have shown that humorous self-criticism works much less well as a tool to engage with peers and superiors, and can even reduce one’s credibility with subordinates – if used excessively.
Social humor is practiced as part of the IDEO design thinking process that “encourages wild ideas” to take root. Even the most absurd perspectives are embraced, and people are encouraged to “defer judgement”. Team members openly make fun of failures related to the ideation process in a way that nurtures their collective, creative input.
Positive humor can also be utilized to reduce the pressure of stress associated with deadlines – not to make targets or challenges disappear, but to improve morale and increase solidarity of purpose.
IDEO embraces the understanding that individuals with a high sense of humor tend to experience less stress than individuals with a low sense of humor, even in situations where both face similar challenges. So Project Leaders are identified not on a basis of seniority, but for their track record of orchestrating positive social interactions between people – of which humor is a critical component.
The fun and humor-filled work culture at companies such as IDEO are well known, but efforts can start at the team or departmental level in any organization – even those not renowned for having fun-embracing corporate cultures.
Lilli Marten Christ is an energetic development manager who works for German automotive firm Daimler AG in China, and opens each of her weekly team meetings with a joke or a riddle. She has found it a useful approach for reducing hierarchy, boosting openness and increasing divergent thinking.
When it comes to boosting innovation the overwhelming focus should be on styles of humour that generate positive emotions. Just as there are rules for the design-thinking process at IDEO, there are unspoken rules about the humor that is acceptable – cyncism, ridicule, sexist and racist humor are considered completely inappropriate.
Inappropriate humor can stifle people’s creative confidence in any organization – not to mention contributing to reduced morale, absenteeism, the elevation of dysfunctional internal competition, and even company-level reputational damage.
But from a gelotological point of view, innovation is one of the few areas of business in which strong humor such as sarcasm can potentially pay dividends – so long as its practice is limited to environments in which people already know, trust and like each other. Research has shown that receiving sarcastic comments and other forms of strong humor from trusted co-workers can stimulate creativity without spurring conflict.
Pixar Animation Studios understands the power of such strong peer feedback. It has created what it calls its ‘Brain Trust’, consisting of a group of highly accomplished directors. When a director and producer feel in need of assistance, they convene the group and show the current version of a movie in progress. This is followed by a fiery discussion that can last up to two hours, unlocking provocative suggestions and constructive criticism.
The sessions are frequently punctuated by laughter, but nobody pulls any punches to be polite. This works because all the participants have come to trust and respect one another – but leadership still actively moderates to ensure that no red-lines are crossed. In these interactions, strong humor is never used as a put-down, as a tool for hierarchical control, or as a signal of dominance.
Discoveries in the field of gelotology also explain why companies such as IDEO, Google and Lego are investing in creating playful and fun work spaces. IDEO offices are designed to encourage fun and freedom of expression, with employees often designing their own work-spaces.
Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Inc. has considered taking merriment at his car plants to a new level, with an idea to install a fully functioning roller coaster to shuttle employees around the Tesla factory in Fremont.
Today, we stand at the precipice of a new era. Future-shaping business leaders are re-discovering the power of humor as a vital driver of organizational success. “Stand-Up Strategists” are leaders who understand the utility of humor to boost creativity and innovation. The joke is on those who fail to seize the power of humor in guiding their organization’s ongoing relevance.
Catmul, E. (2008) How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity. Harvard Business Review, September, Vol. 86 Issue 9, p64‐72.
Huang, Li, F. Gino, and Adam D. Galinsky (2015). The Highest Form of Intelligence: Sarcasm Increases Creativity for Both Exressers and Recipients. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 131 (November), 162–177.
Jamie Anderson is Professor of Strategic Management at Antwerp Management School, and Visiting Professor at INSEAD. A three-time TED speaker, Jamie has been named as a “management guru” in the Financial Times, and has also been included on a list of the world’s “top 25 management thinkers” by the journal Business Strategy Review. To learn more about Jamie’s work, visit his website: www.jamieandersononline.com.
Gabor George Burt is a leading business transformationist and creator of the Slingshot Platform, enabling organizations to overstep perceived limitations, re-imagine market boundaries, and achieve sustained relevance. To learn more about Gabor’s work, visit his website: www.gaborgeorgeburt.com.
In writing this leadership blog, I’ve had the opportunity to share several personal stories that help to illustrate some key insights into how we can succeed in our role as leaders. So it seems only appropriate to share here what will undoubtedly be one of the highlights of my career – my TEDx talk that I gave on the topic of finding purpose in what we do.
In my TEDx talk, I share two personal stories from my work career that have helped to shape my understanding of not only what it takes to be a successful leader, but what it takes to achieve enduring success, and the motivation to always bring our best to the work we do.
Some of the personal lessons I share in my TEDx talk include:
Our sense of purpose is not simply derived by what we do, but by how we choose to view what we do [Share on Twitter].
We all long to feel like we’re a part of something bigger than ourselves; that we understand the impact of our contributions [Share on Twitter].
If we’re not fulfilling our purpose, how can our successes truly matter? Why will we care about these achievements once the glow has faded? [Share on Twitter]
Our real strengths push us to challenge ourselves to do and be better than we are today [Share on Twitter].
Our passion is a reflection of the sense of purpose we gain from the work we do, and the lives we choose to live [Share on Twitter].
Forget Passion - Purpose is the Real Spice of Life | Tanveer Naseer | TEDxConcordia - YouTube
The overall mission of TED is to offer “ideas worth spreading”. To that end, I’d like to end my piece with a request. I’d like to ask that you not only watch my TEDx talk, but that you share it with others, either by sharing this blog post or by sharing this link to my TEDx talk on YouTube.
I want to encourage you to share my TEDx talk not just with your work colleagues, but with your family and friends because I truly believe this is an idea that’s not only worth spreading, but can provide immense value to others to understand how they can achieve meaningful and enduring success.
With the New Year now well under way, many of us are understandably creating goals and developing plans for what we’d like to achieve over the course of the next 12 months. For myself, the start of a New Year also presents a unique opportunity to look back on the past 52 weeks to see which of my writings resonated the most with my readers.
It’s an interesting exercise because it not only lets me know what ideas and topics garner the most interest and engagement from my audience, but it also reveals some interesting patterns about what’s on the forefront on the minds of today’s leaders.
Perhaps most interestingly is the fact that – as was the case for the my top leadership insight in 2016 – the top leadership insight I shared last year came from a piece that revolved around a personal story of mine and the lessons I learned of how to be more effective in how to lead and serve those under our care.
In fact, the second most popular leadership insight also came from a personal experience, in this case from one of my daughters who took on her first leadership role last year and what that experience taught her about what it really takes to successfully lead others.
So, I’m definitely going to keep that in mind when it comes to what I plan on writing and sharing here on my leadership blog over the course of the next 12 months to come.
In the meantime, here are my Top 10 leadership insights of 2017 as chosen by you, the readers of my award-winning leadership blog. Enjoy!
Leadership Insight #10 – Becoming a leader is not about promoting yourself; it’s about helping others to succeed and thrive [Share on Twitter].
“Bringing this kind of intentionality to how we develop and support leaders is important, not only to how organizations select who will join the leadership ranks within their workplace, but in how our employees view and understand what they should expect from those in charge.
Leadership Insight #9 – The power to inspire others exists in all of us. We just have to choose to be present to use it [Share on Twitter].
“To illustrate what I mean by this, think about any leader who you look to as a source of inspiration. No doubt they’ve achieved remarkable things. But as you look past their achievements, what do see about them as a person? Are they someone you’d enjoy being around, someone you could learn from? Do you feel that they would see your true potential and encourage you to live up to it?
I’m sure for most of you, you’d answer in the affirmative. And this exercise reveals another important truth – to inspire others is to empower them to make that better version of themselves a reality.”
Leadership Insight #8 – To drive change, we have to craft a message that’s easy to understand, memorable and inspiring [Share on Twitter].
“One of the things every writer knows is that if you’re going to retain your audience over the long run, you need to create some form of a hook; something that’s going to motivate people to stay invested in tuning into your show every week, to picking up and finishing your book, or to reading the latest entry in your leadership blog.
Part of that hook requires that while we create this notion of a big payoff in the long run of sticking with it, there is also some tangible benefit the audience gets in the here and now. Something that reminds them of why they’re invested today and why they should continue ‘tuning in’ as things move forward.”
Leadership Insight #7 – Passion without purpose is a lost opportunity for us to do something that’s meaningful and enduring [Share on Twitter].
“Granted, when we start talking about creating purpose-led work, this can lead to some hesitation on the part of leaders and their organizations because of the misplaced notion that purposeful work has to be glamorous or exciting.
The truth, however, is that we don’t need work to be exciting for us to derive a sense of value or meaning from it. Rather, what’s needed is being able to see and understand for ourselves how our contributions are making a difference towards achieving our collective vision and long-term goals.
Leadership Insight #6 – Dealing with change is more than a process; it’s an on-going journey of exploration and discovery [Share on Twitter].
“This is that roadblock that impedes so many of us from taking those critical first steps in this journey of change. As there’s no guaranteed notion of what awaits us, how can we be sure it’s worth opening the door to see what’s on the other side?
As such, the question we face is do we have the courage to change, not just today, but as we move forward? Will we treat change not merely as something we’re willing to do today, but as something we’ll embrace going forward as new realities sharpen into focus as we continue on our journey towards achieving our long-term goals?”
Leadership Insight #5 – The questions we ask shape not only our conversations, but the relationships we have with others [Share on Twitter].
“If there’s one thing leaders everywhere share in common it’s working within an environment where they face increasing demands on their time and attention, while at the same being expected to make decisions as quickly as possible.
Taken together, these factors create conditions where it’s easy for leaders to resort to asking questions that require only a yes/no answer. While these answers can help us act quickly, the problem is that they lack context or insights that can help us make more effective decisions and choices going forward.”
Leadership Insight #4 – Trust is built on the belief that leaders have the best interests of others at heart [Share on Twitter].
That’s why our character is defined by the level of integrity we display – it’s not so much what you say about yourself and what you supposedly represent, but it’s the actions and behaviours you take that truly define for others who you really are and what you actually stand for.
Indeed, having integrity demonstrates that the actions you take are driven by something more than self-serving interests.
Leadership Insight #3 – Building relationships is about more than understanding others; it’s making people feel understood [Share on Twitter].
“The unfortunate truth is that we’re living in an increasingly divisive world – whether it’s because of our political viewpoints, because of our religious beliefs, or even because of where we or our parents came from.
And yet, the undeniable truth is that the longevity of today’s organizations is no longer dependent on what technologies you use, where you operate, or even what you create. Rather, your organization’s ability to adapt, evolve, and grow in today’s interconnected, global environment is dependent on the people who show up every day to help your organization move one step closer to achieving your shared purpose.”
Leadership Insight #2 – Our ability to grow as leaders is dependent on our willingness to get feedback from those we lead [Share on Twitter].
“One of the biggest concerns (my daughter) Malaika had early on was whether she was doing enough to support the 24 camp mentors under her care. Some times, she worried that she was speaking too much and other times, she wondered if she didn’t give her team enough insight or guidance on what to do.
To address her concerns, Malaika decided to speak to some of the camp mentors she didn’t know very well to get their impressions of how she was doing. As it turned out, the camp mentors were not only happy with the job that she was doing, but they appreciated that she wanted to know what they thought.
By being pro-active in seeking feedback from her team, Malaika sent a clear message to the camp mentors that she genuinely cared about their opinions and wanted to know if her efforts were as helpful as she thought they were.”
And this leads us to my top leadership insight shared here on my leadership blog in 2017, something that comes from a story of when I failed as a leader and the powerful lesson it taught me about how to become a better leader by becoming a better listener:
Leadership Insight #1 – Listening is not simply hearing what others are saying; it’s giving them space to contribute [Share on Twitter].
“Indeed, one trait all successful leaders openly exhibit is being inquisitive; that their focus is not limited to their ideas, their stories, and their experiences. Rather, they display a genuine interest to learn about those they lead and work with; to hear their stories and experiences that have shaped and informed their understandings and perspective.
That’s why being a good listener involves shifting our focus from trying to be interesting to being interested.”
And there you have it, my Top 10 Leadership Insights of 2017. It’s said that our ideas are a reflection of our times. If so, I’m looking forward to seeing what ideas come to mind in the weeks and months to come.
With just a few days left on the calendar, the time has once again arrived for that annual event of compiling retrospectives for the year that was. Whether it’s highlighting the top moments, the major trends, a look back at the various talented people who passed away this year, compiling and cataloguing what transpired over the past 12 months has become a standard feature of our contemporary lives.
Of course, these lists of the top moments of the past year invariably lead to much being written about what a bad year 2017 turned out to be, and of our hopes that 2018 will be better. It’s in these moments that I enjoy being a writer because in many ways, our writings allow us to travel back in time, peeling back the days, weeks, and months so as to revisit past perceptions and anticipations for what might come.
While most of us might not recall what made 2016 not such a great year, there’s little doubt that this year will not go down in our collective human history as being one of our finest moments in time.
With a rise in hate towards various racial, ethnic, and minority groups in parts of Europe and North America, the growing fear of a potential nuclear war alongside rising tensions in the Middle East, the onslaught of stories revealing the seemingly ubiquitous presence of sexual harassment and violence women endure in many of today’s workplaces, as well as uncertainties on the economic front has certainly left a bad taste for the year that was.
And yet, the simple truth is we’ve been here before. Perhaps in some ways, this is a product of the faster-paced, always-on nature of our digital society. That we inevitably feel this fatigue when reaching that one-year mark, fatigue which manifests itself in this hopeful expectation that a mere change in the calendar year will spring forth better times.
While there’s certainly nothing wrong with being hopeful, the fact is hope alone is not enough. Without question, our world is facing many critical issues, some of which can seem too daunting for us to address, let alone overcome.
But as many of us prepare for the impending arrival of a new year as a key motivator for change, we must reconcile with this truth:
We have a choice of letting change simply happen to us, or to adapt and learn from it to be stronger going forward [Share on Twitter].
Sure, we’ve all seen examples of our fellow citizens being at their worst, of succumbing to their fear of those different from them and spreading hate and fear in response. We’ve seen political opportunism take hold where politicians seem more interested in defending their behaviours and actions, instead of honouring their responsibility to first and foremost serve the best interests of every person who falls under their leadership.
But, at the same time, we’ve seen average people take on leadership roles to not only say ‘enough is enough’, but to offer a better way; a more positive and inclusive vision of who we are and what we can accomplish together.
Their examples have helped to fuel various social movements driving many societies to have those uncomfortable, but necessary conversations about who we really are, and what we need to do if we are to truly live up to those notions of what we claim to represent. Their actions also provide us with an important end-of-year message that leaders everywhere should be mindful to take hold of.
Namely, that as leaders, we need to encourage our employees to not only challenge what is, but what we could be going forward [Share on Twitter].
At the beginning of a new year, this sentiment is something that all of us can get behind, as many of us use the start of a new year as a motivator to start something new. To kickstart initiatives to eat better, do more exercise, and just in general aim to live a better, happier, and more fulfilling life.
While as leaders, we can tap into this warm embrace for change at the start of the year, it’s our job to make sure we continue to drive that effort forward so that 11 months from now, we’re not simply taking stock of another year that failed to live up to those hopeful notions we conjured up of what may lie ahead.
That’s why when reflecting on the past year, it’s important that we identify how we’ll move forward in addressing both what we got wrong as well as what we got right [Share on Twitter].
Again, it’s easy to fall into that hopeful trap that the fresh start we associate with the beginning of a new year will automatically translate into better times going forward.
But the truth is things don’t improve because we want them to. They improve because we care enough to invest ourselves to make that change happen [Share on Twitter]. That we’re willing to invest our time, energy, talents, experiences, insights, and even our hopes and dreams to ensure that the challenges, difficulties, hardships, and setbacks that mire us today will become a thing of the past.
In other words, we’re willing to give the best of ourselves because we believe in that vision of the better future we can create by stepping up to do our part in making it a reality.
So, let’s not look back at 2017 with all its numerous setbacks and faults and how so many times, we saw the worst in those around us. Rather, let’s learn from it so we can find our way to not only make things better, but live up to the awe and potential that our modern, digital age tells us is within our reach to attain.
That is, of course, only if we consciously make the choice to listen to our better angels and not to those who’d only serve to bring us down.