Do You Have Margin in Your Life?

Many of us are always “on” these days, running from task to task. Never-ending demands. Frenetic pace. We fill every available moment with activity or scrolling through our digital feeds.

Young hustlers making it happen. Working parents managing the household. Climbing the corporate ladder or growing our small business or nonprofit.  Perpetual busyness.

It feels heavy always going at this pace. We get exhausted.

The problem: We don’t have enough margin in our lives.

It’s not common to talk and think in terms of margin in our lives. But it’s needed now more than ever. A margin is the border between things, like the margin on a page. Filling every page up to the max just gets overwhelming.

The Consequences of Not Having Margin

The consequences of not having margin are severe: lower quality of life, less happiness and fulfillment, and lower performance at work over time.

“If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the Information Age, it’s a lack of reflection. Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting. We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise.”General James Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense and four-star Marine Corps General

It can damage to our health and relationships—and our soul. It can lead to burnout and a sense of emptiness. It takes time away from the things we enjoy, such as hobbies or time with friends. It prevents us from exercising enough. It induces us to stress-eat, binge-watch, or skimp on sleep.

The Benefits of Margin

Having margin gives us room to breathe, to reflect and renew. To “sharpen the saw,” as author Stephen R. Covey wrote. With margin we can rise up and view things with perspective. We can reactivate our creativity and wisdom.

When we have breathing room, we can start to see where we’re going wrong—where we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with dysfunctional behaviors. We begin to see the possibilities for change.

Without margin, we keep our heads down and keep ploughing forward, stuck in the same traps and not even admitting it to ourselves. Sometimes we’re too busy and distracted to notice.

What to do with the margin we carve out in our lives? With it, we can:

  • reflect on what’s important
  • assess how things are going
  • see if there’s a gap between the life we have and the life we want
  • consider new ideas for closing that gap
  • experience mindful living in the present, without fretting about the past or worrying about the future

Why Is This So Hard?

It sounds simple enough, but it’s not an easy feat in today’s world of dizzying distractions and cunning algorithms designed to hijack our attention with chemical manipulations in our brains. At bottom, they’re not giving us a better life but an escape from it.

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop. Exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”Sean Parker, first president of Facebook and co-founder of Napster

The evidence is alarming. Average daily digital content consumption (including time spent on social media, news sites, and streaming) is now just under seven hours (six hours and 59 minutes), according to a recent Forbes report.

 

This can lead to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “psychic entropy,” a condition of inner disorder in the mind, often including a chaotic mental review of things that impairs our effectiveness. He writes that it “involves seeing more to do than one can actually accomplish.”

It’s especially difficult if we’re trying to please everyone and not learning to set boundaries and say no—a big challenge for some people. In turn, this leads to us becoming overcommitted and falling into a death spiral of too much anxiety without the mental and emotional fortitude to deal with it and too much work volume without enough deep work to handle it.

“Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of mental laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”Tim Ferriss

For some, a compulsion to achieve, win, or achieve recognition or status prevents us from carving out enough margin in our lives. This can lead to workaholism, a state of addiction to work in which we can’t switch it off or stop thinking about it. Another factor is being overly optimistic about what can get done by when—wearing “rose-colored glasses,” as they say.

What to Do about It

How to get more margin in our life? It helps to acknowledge the problem first, perhaps flowing from an assessment of how we’re spending our time and determining the areas in which it’s not time well spent. (Yes, there are apps for that.)

Perhaps most importantly, we must get clear on what’s important to us, starting with our values (what we value most in life—and the behaviors that manifest those things), purpose  (our reason for being, or what infuses our life with meaning and significance), and aspirations for our life and work. Modern movements like essentialism and minimalism can help us avoid the trappings of overconsumption and overscheduling while distilling things to the essential few that enrich our lives.

It’s essential to establish clear and challenging criteria for what to say “yes” to and to get better at saying “no” to many things that come across the transom in our lives. As author Greg McKeown advises, “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

Next, we need to build renewal into our days, giving us a sense of serenity instead of that precarious state of anxiety from the cumulative effects of overwork, stress, poor sleep, and not taking caring of ourselves or connecting enough with others. There are limits to our energy. We need good habits of rest and renewal.

“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” John W. Gardner

Even better if we can find “sanctuary” in our lives—places and practices of peace that restore our hearts. Places of quiet and tranquility. Beyond the striving, beyond the chase, beyond the willfulness, there’s an acceptance, a yielding, a comfort with the present moment and a willingness to see things for what they are and ride with the flow of life. It’s the serenity beyond the stress and struggle.

It helps to schedule margin into our lives: put it on our calendar and protect it. We must regain control of all the things that eat into margin, such as email or Slack, meetings, smartphones, interruptions, and messy workspaces. We need to get better at anticipating and preventing distractions, thereby creating the conditions for focus, flow, and deep work.

We should also look for smaller things we can do—quick and easy hacks that help us preserve margin. In his book, Indistractable, Nir Eyal, recommends the “ten-minute rule”: waiting ten minutes before giving in to an urge to check our phone as a pacification device.

Reflection Questions

  • Do you have enough margin in your life?
  • How is lack of margin harming your wellbeing, relationships, or work?
  • What steps will you take, starting today, to reclaim your life and the margin it requires?

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Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Build More Margin

  • “I love a broad margin to my life.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • Margin is “time to make room for change.” -Jeff Sapadafora, author and coach
  • “What do we want more of in life?… It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness.” -Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key
  • “Human beings have always employed an enormous amount of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in such stratagems. We can keep ourselves busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. More often than not we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By middle life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” -John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal
  • “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” -Ovid
  • “All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence…. Silence is the general consecreation of the universe.” -Herman Melville
  • “We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.” -Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

Books that Will Help Change Your Life with More Margin

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

The Trap of Caring Too Much about What Other People Think

We humans are social animals. We’re wired to think about our role in the group and about how others think of us. It matters in our families, friendships, and work relationships. We can’t survive and thrive without tending to these relationships.

But there’s also a big trap here. The problem is when we’re so influenced by what others think—or, to be precise, what we think others will think—that it causes us to make choices that won’t serve us well over time. We avoid the short-term pain of a possible loss in status in exchange for the long-term loss of missing out on better things.

This dynamic can cause us to drift away from who we really are and what we really want to do. To drift toward the safety of what others expect. We can lose bits of ourselves as we seek approval from or try to please others.

These are common traps. And painful ones.

“The unhappiest people in this world are those who care the most about what other people think.”C. JoyBell C., writer

To be clear, it’s not that expectations are bad. They’re needed, and they can be helpful in many ways. The problem is becoming addicted to approval or fenced in by others’ expectations.

Haunted by Expectations

I see this again and again—and especially among young people early in their career. As they navigate through the dark and disorienting maze of career options, they’re haunted by the expectations of their parents—and of teachers, coaches, and peers: Be a doctor. Or lawyer. Or architect. Join the family business. Choose a profession. Go for salary and status. Climb the ladder. (Regardless of who you are, what you love, and what you long for.)

There’s a deceptive calculus at work here. The benefits of the approval flowing from those safe and respectable options can turn out to be shallow and fleeting. We can find ourselves in a career filled with things we don’t like—or even resent—and we’ve signed up for about 80,000 hours of it (the average amount of work people do today over a lifetime). So how does that bargain look now?

Meanwhile, there may be other costs: Paperwork. Time sheets. Bureaucracy. Boring meetings. Energy-sapping colleagues. Lousy bosses. All for what?

Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with being a doctor, lawyer, architect, or whatever, or with joining the family business, or pursuing a traditional career path IF—and here’s the rub—IF it’s a good fit for you. The key is that it’s your choice and that you’ve tried it and found it to be a good fit for you. That it fills you up with energy more often than it drains you.

Of course, not everyone has a choice. Sometimes we’re buried in debt or mired in financial stress and insecurity, or lacking better options. Many people face structural or institutional barriers or biases. But we usually have more choices than we think. It often comes down to our courage and agency, and to our imagination and hustle, despite the obstacles.

My sense is that we tend to overweight the external factors of approval and status early in life, while the intrinsic motivations quietly and steadily grow in importance as we grow older.

Avoiding this trap of getting pushed off course by the expectations winds is especially hard during transitions, because taking a step back to chart a new course summons potent fears of judgment and disappointment from others, though the reality may be that many are excited or even a bit envious about our new adventure (and most probably won’t even notice or think twice).

The Costs of Caring Too Much about What Others Think

When we’re in this mode of being driven by outside expectations, we tend to:

  • have a hard time communicating forthrightly when there’s disagreement or debate
  • struggle with setting boundaries
  • work too much and feel overwhelmed
  • experience anxiety and stress
  • feel resentment
  • avoid doing things that call to us
  • pass up on potential opportunities

The need for achievement-based approval can become a compulsion. We become approval addicts looking for our next hit, and then the next. When does it end?

Life is too precious and short to let others determine our path.

It gets worse: The expectations of others are a terrible guide for deciding what’s right for us in our own particular context. Those expectations can be unrealistic, or even contradictory. What are we supposed to do with that? If we try to please everybody, we’ll fail miserably. No matter how hard we may try, we can never do things just as others might want or expect.

By surrendering to the Siren call of people-pleasing, we violate a silent sacred pact with ourselves, denying our nature and denigrating our integrity, leading to a downward spiral of self-doubt and inner turmoil.

Why Is This So Hard?

It’s easy to understand this problem conceptually, harder to self-diagnose because it’s emotionally charged and sometimes subconscious, but very difficult to address properly. Why?

For starters, we’ve been doing this for our whole lives—a tough habit to break. It’s been part of our conditioning as children—seeking the attention and approval of our parents and striving again and again to demonstrate our worth. When we did what was expected, we basked in soothing acceptance.

Our brains and bodies seek the chemical rewards of this stimulus-response feedback loop from our neurotransmitting hormones. This loop began in early childhood and it’s etched deep into our neural pathways. According to the late leadership expert Edward Morler, the stages of human development include moving from a focus on “Am I good enough?” in childhood to a healthier focus on “I am enough” in mature adulthood.

Related Traps

This excessive need for approval can also manifest is many related traps, including:

  • getting too caught up in “climbing mode”
  • constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up
  • conforming to societal conventions or conventional paths instead of blazing our own
  • holding back or not trying due to fears about failure or threats to image
  • feeling that others are racing ahead with more clarity or success while we lag behind
  • sticking with a sub-optimal life or career path because we’re afraid of what others will think if we step off the treadmill and start over
  • being short-sighted about what matters in life
  • not setting proper boundaries or articulating needs due to a need to be liked
  • being consumed by a hunger for status, prestige, or approval
  • pretending to be someone we’re not
  • becoming addicted to work

How to Stop this Downward Spiral

Okay, so we know it’s a big problem. What to do about it? Here are 8 things we can do to stop this downward spiral:

  1. Acquire more self-awareness (in part by paying attention to our instincts and listening to our inner voice)
  2. Develop a clear and compelling personal purpose, values, and vision so that we’re clear about our deeper why, what’s most important to us, and what we want for our life
  3. Cultivate self-acceptance: Appreciate what we have and do well while shutting down our unrealistic inner critic
  4. Take time before saying yes to a new task or commitment and have clear and high standards for what we’ll spend time on
  5. Gain perspective: How much will what they think matter in a week, a month, a year, a decade? In the final analysis?
  6. Experiment with what it feels like to experience disapproval, sitting with it and getting a sense of how much it matters (if at all?)
  7. Notice how people may respect us for setting boundaries and for being clear and committed to our goals and aspirations
  8. Imagine and pursue the freedom and power on the other side of this mental block—the gift of finally letting ourselves be who we really are and long to become

“The most freeing experience of my life thus far has been to… be unapologetically myself, and to stand in my own light.” -Hannah Rose, therapist and writer

Reflection Questions

  • Are you caring too much about what other people think in some areas of your life?
  • Which ones?
  • Which action steps above will you start taking?
  • Who can you turn to for help or accountability?

 

Don’t waste your time on earth

doing the work of others.

Do your own work.

The sweat of your soul,

 

The lightness in the center of your heart

will tell you

when you are on course.

 

The swiftness of your breath

will slow to match

the tidal pull of moonlight.

 

You will ski effortlessly

down the slope of each day

calling your own name

softly to the trees.

-Elizabeth Carlson, poet, “Don’t Waste Your Time”

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Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Avoid this Trap

  • “Being dependent on approval—so dependent that we barter away all our time, energy, and personal preferences to get it—ruins lives.” –Martha Beck, author
  • “The first step toward change is to refuse to be deployed by others and to choose to deploy yourself.” –Warren Bennis, leadership author
  • “I was driven by the expectation that I needed some type of profession. [I was also] driven by parental expectations and by looking at my peers.” –Warren Brown, entrepreneur
  • “Everyone seems to have a clear idea of how other people should lead their lives, but none about his or her own.” –Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist
  • “I was dying inside. I was so possessed by trying to make you love me for my achievements that I was actually creating this identity that was disconnected from myself. I wanted people to love me for the hologram I created of myself.” –Chip Conley, entrepreneur and author
  • “You have to decide what your highest priorities are and have the courage—pleasantly, smilingly, nonapologetically—to say ’no’ to other things. And the way to do that is by having a bigger ‘yes’ burning inside.” –Stephen R. Covey, author
  • “The problem comes when people are so eager to win the approval of others that they try to cover their shortcomings and sacrifice their authenticity to gain the respect and admiration of their associates.” –Bill George, leadership expert and author
  • “Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma—which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.” –Steve Jobs, entrepreneur
  • “Listen to your heart above all other voices.” -Martha Kagan
  • “‘Finding yourself’ is not really how it works. You aren’t a ten-dollar bill in last winter’s coat pocket. You are also not lost. Your true self is right there, buried under cultural conditioning, other people’s opinions, and inaccurate conclusions you drew as a kid that became your beliefs about who you are. ‘Finding yourself’ is actually returning to yourself. An unlearning, an excavation, a remembering who you were before the world got its hands on you.” –Emily McDowell, writer and entrepreneur
  • “So long as you’re still worried about what others think of you, you are owned by them. Only when you require no approval from outside yourself can you own yourself.” –Neale Donald Walsch, author
  • “Most people are controlled by fear of what other people think. And fear of what, usually, their parents or their relatives are going to say about what they’re doing. A lot of people go through life like this, and they’re miserable. You want to be able to do what you want to do in life.” –Janet Wojcicki, professor, Univ. of California at San Francisco

I do my thing and you do your thing.

I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,

And you are not in this world to live up to mine.

You are you, and I am I,

and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.

If not, it can’t be helped.

-Fritz Perls, Gestalt Prayer

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

The Problem of Going It Alone

One of the silver linings of this ruthless pandemic has been what it has reminded us about our longing for relationship, for connection, for human touch. What was suddenly stolen was dearly missed and now cherished.

Close connection with family and friends and a sense of belonging are the most important building blocks of a life well lived. Yet today we have forces driving us apart.

One is a culture of excessive individualism and egocentric living, a sense that life is all about us. It’s the trap of being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves. If we’re fortunate enough to live a comfortable life with our needs met, one danger is that we can “cocoon” into our big homes with big yards with more stuff than we need and wall ourselves off into social isolation.

Here we encounter the emptiness of egocentric living. By contrast, we can pursue the meaningfulness of relational commitment, of being there for others and letting them be there for us.

Burnout and Overwork

Another problem is our culture of burnout and overwork. In his wonderful book, How Will Your Measure Your Life?, written with his colleagues James Allworth and Karen Dillon before he passed away, Clayton Christensen wrote:

“…there is much more to life than your career…. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work–and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families–starving one of the most important parts of our life.”

Happiness Is Social

There’s a mountain of research demonstrating the importance of relationships, belonging, and social connectedness to our happiness. Take the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a massive longitudinal study of hundreds of people for about 80 years now. Writing about the study in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

The subjects continue to be studied to this day. They’re evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their doctors, and interviews. Researchers gathered information about their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality.

When asked what he’s learned from the study, psychiatrist and professor George Vaillant (a psychiatrist who led the study for decades) wrote: “Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

“All you need is love.”The Beatles

Sources of Happiness

In another study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. What did they find? Wealth? Beauty? Fame? Fitness? No, the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest 10 percent: the strength of their social relationships. In their book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener write: “…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”

According to summary findings on happiness from Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and other researchers she’s studied (from her book, The How of Happiness), the happiest people:

  • Devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships
  • Are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have
  • Are often the first to offer helping hands to co-workers and others
  • Practice optimism when imagining their futures
  • Savor life and live in the present moment
  • Exercise regularly
  • Are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., teaching children their values)
  • Show poise and strength when coping with challenges

(Note how many of those activities involve relationships.)

According to researchers who evaluated data from the World Values Survey, which surveyed people in more than 150 countries about their life satisfaction, the top factors that account for about three-fourths of reported well-being are:

  • social support
  • generosity
  • trust
  • freedom
  • income per capita
  • healthy life expectancy

(Note how many of these factors are social. The link between life satisfaction and social connection has held up very well across time and place, according to the World Happiness Report 2015.)

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life. And that is true at any age…. We are each other’s safety nets.”Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Isolation

Alas, the flip side is also true. Isolation can become a downward spiral, fostering discontent and shame, leading to further isolation. It turns out that going it alone through hard times and transitions, though an instinct for many, is a recipe for more hardship.

“Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.”Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined

Truth be told, staying connected to others can be hard at times. It doesn’t help that we have so much political division and distrust, with so many people dismissing or dehumanizing others who have different views. Our age of political contempt, partisan warfare, and take-no-prisoners tribalism is surely not helping.

Vulnerability and Connection

Many of us also struggle with vulnerability, with asking for help. We fear feeling uncomfortable and a potential loss of social status if we admit that our lives are not Instagram-perfect. So we resort to superficial conversations that feel safer, neglecting the deeper territory of openness and self-disclosure through meaningful dialogue.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”Brene Brown, researcher, speaker, and author

What’s needed, though, is more of what design thinkers call “radical collaboration,” which can be thought of as collaborating much more than you normally would—proactively seeking mentors, coaches, friends, peer groups, and people to learn from and ask questions.

The problem of going it alone in times of trouble or transition is that it doesn’t work very well. A better approach: reach out and connect. Share. Listen. Help, and accept help. You and your family, friends, and colleagues will be glad you did.

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Postscript: Quotes on the Importance of Relationships

  • “In everyone’s life, at some time, an inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” –Stephen R. Covey, author, executive, and speaker
  • “Belonging begins with safety…. this is a place and a relationship where you feel safe enough to be the real you.” –Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life
  • “Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.” –Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve 
  • “Being in a state of in between means being in some state of loneliness. Being neither here nor there often feels like being nowhere. Which is why connecting with others is so central to getting through one of these times. Human beings like to share.” –Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring our lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people.” –Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
  • “Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others.” –Boris Pasternak, Russian poet and novelist (Doctor Zhivago)

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

The Comparison Trap

We all fall into traps in life. One of the most common is the comparison trap: constantly comparing ourselves to others and judging our worth by how we stack up—mostly on things that are superficial and unimportant:

Where do I live?

What do I drive?

How much do I make?

Where do I fall in the social hierarchy?

According to researchers, this kind of comparative thinking is common:

“…the urge to make comparisons is strong. Our research has found that more than 10% of daily thoughts involved making a comparison of some kind.” -Dr. Amy Summerville, “Is Comparison Really the Thief of Joy”

I suspect it’s only getting worse in the age of Instagram and TikTok.

As always, there’s some nuance here. This kind of thinking can motivate us to work harder to improve. We can draw energy from a sense of competition and striving.

The problem, though, is that this kind of thinking can significantly detract from our sense of wellbeing and life satisfaction.

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” -Theodore Roosevelt

“Social comparison is a big part of how people measure worldly success, but the research is clear that it strips us of life satisfaction.”Arthur C. Brooks, social scientist and writer

One reason is that we tend to use unrealistic comparison points, such as the best person we know in an area, such as wealth or fitness. Naturally, then, we fall short in a side-by-side review.

Of course, we can’t be the best in everything. What’s more, our self-review can be brutal. And that means we’re sabotaging ourselves.

Another issue: the point of life is not to be the best (or the richest, or most famous, powerful, or beautiful), and certainly not to be the best at everything. Talk about unrealistic.

Also, we’re all living our own lives, with our own unique context, challenges, values, and aspirations. Life can be hard enough without us feeling like we have to beat someone at their game.

A better formula: You be you, and I’ll be me. I’ll play my own game. (And hopefully I’ll choose the long game.)

“…let’s just go ahead and be what we were made to be, without enviously or pridefully comparing ourselves with each other, or trying to be something we aren’t.” -Romans 12

If some comparing is inevitable (often generated involuntarily by our mischievous brains), one key may be our mindset: do we view our abilities as fixed (and thereby feel bad if someone is better than us at something), or as malleable if we work hard and smart, thereby motivating to learn, grow, and develop?

Fortunately, researchers have identified many ways we can train our brain to be happier:

  • We need to move our bodies, and when we do so we can build strength, endurance, and energy. It causes positive reactions in our bodies that affect our mood, and it helps us sleep well (also critical for physical and mental health).
  • According to researchers, being grateful for what we have can have powerful effects on our quality of life, including improved well-being, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and physical health. Activities such as gratitude journaling or writing gratitude letters to those who have helped us can have surprisingly strong and lasting effects.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness. Researchers have found many benefits from mindfulness practices, including improvements in mental and physical health as well as performance.
  • A clear sense of why we’re here or what makes our lives feel meaningful or significant.
  • Fully feeling and enjoying positive experiences, and thereby extending them.
  • Contributing to others, in ways large or small, including simple things like acts of kindness.
  • Writing / Journaling. Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help people create meaning from them. And it can be a creative outlet for emotional catharsis.
  • Goals and Progress. Having a deep commitment to and progress on lifelong goals, including small wins and a sense of movement and direction, can be invigorating.

Ultimately, a great antidote to the comparative trap is what Father Robert Spitzer, former President of Gonzaga University, has called a contributive ethic, including working toward the greater good.

Instead of walking around comparing ourselves to others, why don’t we walk around wondering how we can help? And why can’t we make this a habit, perhaps becoming our new default and crowding out those vexing comparative distractions?

Why compare when instead we can contribute?

“The happiness of your life depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”Marcus Aurelius

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

The Urgency of Sustainable Leadership—and the Promise of Social Entrepreneurship

On this Earth Day, we honor our planet and recognize the importance of climate action and environmental stewardship. We acknowledge our interdependence—and the gravity of the stakes if we fail to meet the moment.

What is the role of business in this epic challenge? Of leaders and entrepreneurs? Of all of us?

The Role of Business

Business leaders of course must address cash, profits, and growth as they manage their venture’s financial health amidst market pressures. Thankfully, there are not just costs associated with environmental stewardship but real opportunities.

“For far-sighted companies, the environment may turn out to be the biggest opportunity for enterprise and invention the industrial world has ever seen.”The Economist

Businesses operating sustainably have the potential for:

  • Increased sales
  • Cost reduction
  • Risk mitigation
  • Reputation enhancement
  • Operational efficiency
  • Customer loyalty
  • Pricing premiums
  • Innovation benefits
  • Competitive advantage
  • Talent attraction, motivation, and retention

Of course, these gains are not automatic. Leaders must figure out viable business models and strategies, leveraging innovation and efficient operations while engaging with partners in the community and their supply chains.

None of this can happen without leading people well. Organizations must have an intentional culture that allows people to sustain excellent and ethical work over time.

“I think every business needs a leader that does not forget the massive impact business can have on the world. All business leaders should be thinking, ‘How can I be a force for good?’ What I see is demand from our people to be a business that is good, makes a profit, but also does something for the planet and humanity. I think this is a trend we will see more of.” Richard Branson, British entrepreneur, philanthropist, and founder, Virgin Group

The Promise of Social Entrepreneurship

One of the driving forces of changemaking on this front is social entrepreneurship. It’s one of the great mega-trends of our time, but it can be a bit complicated and confusing. What is it?

Wikipedia notes that social entrepreneurship “uses entrepreneurial principles to organize, create, and manage a venture to achieve a social change.” I define it simply as “creating an innovative enterprise that generates social value.”

It’s best illustrated through examples. Today there are many exciting examples of social entrepreneurship and innovation in action:

  • Karma is a food app in Sweden that connects surplus food from restaurants, cafes, and grocery stores to consumers for a lower price. Users eat food for less money, and businesses receive an additional revenue stream–all while reducing food waste.
  • The Palazzo Italia is a building in Milan with a smart, biodynamic concrete skin that absorbs and breaks down pollutants—making it a smog-eating building. Photocatalytic cement captures pollution when it comes into contact with light, which is then transformed into inert salts. The building, designed by Nemesi Studio, is net-zero energy.
  • Valani is a fashion brand that bridges the gap between sustainability and feminine style by offering sustainable, vegan apparel for women. Its plant-based fabrics are dyed with low-impact, non-toxic dyes and can be composted. One dress, for example, is made from 100% banana viscose, made from discarded banana tree stems, a vegan alternative to silk.

“Let’s be honest, sustainability and fashion haven’t always been friends.” Vanni Leung, founder of Valani

Social entrepreneurs often begin with a problem they notice. They learn more about the context and start experimenting with different ways to solve it. For example:

  • Problem: Coral reefs support up to 1 billion people, sustain 25% of marine life, and generate $30 billion annually through tourism and fisheries, but they are dying rapidly. Over 30% of our world’s reefs have died over the past several decades. The oceans are projected to lose 75% of reefs by 2050.
  • Solution: coral farming has been proven to be a viable tool to revitalize reef health. Coral Vita in the Bahamas created a commercial, land-based coral farm that grows and transplants corals to restore dying coral reefs, helping to preserve the ocean’s biodiversity.

 

  • Problem: Potholes are annoying to people and damaging to cars, while roadmaking has a large carbon footprint.
  • Solution: MacRebur in Scotland uses molten, recycled plastic as a replacement for the bitumen commonly found in asphalt roads. Their product is now used in Australia, Dubai, Estonia, Slovakia, South Africa, and the U.S.

“We’re basically using rubbish to create better roads.” -Toby McCartney, co-founder of MacRebur in Scotland, “The Plastic Roads Company”

  • Problem: lack of access to clean water. The WHO and UNICEF note that 844 million people faced this problem in 2015.
  • Solution: Solvatten founder and CEO Petra Wadström created a revolutionary water-filtration technology—a portable water treatment device that also serves as a solar water heater. The sun’s energy inactivates pathogens through UV radiation, while also heating the water to provide additional disinfection. UV light destroys the formation of DNA linkages in microorganisms, making them harmless. Today, about 350,000 people across 20 countries use Solvatten.

The Role of Technology and Innovation

Today, we’re seeing great advances in areas such as biomimicry, circular economy business models, carbon sequestration, regenerative and restorative practices, and more.

Of course, social entrepreneurship, sustainable leadership, and innovation aren’t nearly enough on their own to address the climate crisis. We also need bold and decisive collective action from governments, NGOs, philanthropies, scientists, and individuals changing their behavior and sending market signals to industry.

On this Earth Day, we must take stock and act boldly, decisively, and urgently. So much is at stake. Will we meet the moment?

“If the success or failure of this planet, and of human beings, depended on how I am and what I do, how would I be? What would I do?” -Buckminster Fuller

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture focused on leading self, leading others, and leading change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

Guard Your Heart

A year into the pandemic, we’re reminded of how important it is to guard your heart.

Here we mean our metaphysical heart, our sacred center. Parker Palmer said it beautifully:

“I’m using the word ‘heart’ as they did in ancient times, when it didn’t merely mean the emotions, as it tends to mean today. It meant that center in the human self where everything comes together—where will and intellect and values and feeling and intuition and vision all converge. It meant the source of one’s integrity.”

So many of us these days have suffered anxieties, losses, hardship, or tragedies. All added on a baseline of busyness and burnout. With frazzled days and heavy loads. With negative self-talk judging harshly. With fear and uncertainty.

This year, our hearts have taken a beating.

The effects on our health, relationships, and work can be devastating.

So we must guard our hearts, preserving every ounce of hope, wonder, awe, gratitude, and love we can muster.

“Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life.” -Proverbs 4:23 (King Solomon)

Why does heart matter so much?

We need it in our lives. We need it to stay grounded and faithful that we can survive, that we can learn the lessons life is offering.

We need it in our relationships, often frayed or neglected during hard times.

We need it at work, with opportunities to connect with colleagues also facing ghosts or demons.

We need it in our leadership, especially during hard times. In his adaptive leadership framework, Ron Heifetz of Harvard University encourages us to maintain a “sacred heart” and avoid numbing our soul with cynicism or defeatism.

How to guard your heart?

For starters, develop resilience through disciplined self-care. There are many possibilities, so choose the ones that resonate with you:

  • Breaks
  • Conversations
  • Exercise
  • Fun
  • Games
  • Gratitude
  • Hobbies
  • Meditation
  • Mindfulness
  • Music
  • Nature
  • Relationships
  • Savoring
  • Serving
  • Sleep
  • Stargazing
  • Writing or journaling
  • Yoga

Some of the most powerful heart defenses come bottled in larger themes: Live purposefully. Preserve your vitality. Stay connected to people. Serve others. Take time for renewal.

If your heart is asleep, dormant from years of neglect, reawaken it.

If your heart is closed, crack it open.

If your heart is cold, bring it warmth.

If your path forward is hazy, ask your heart to light the way. We see things with our heart that we can’t see otherwise.

Guard your heart.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Are You Playing the Long Game?

These days it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing the short game. Our culture is geared toward it. With our devices, we’re developing the attention span of a gnat. We swipe and scroll. We get fidgety with a few seconds of down-time.

The power of the long game is astonishing, but the short game is alluring. We see it in many realms.

We see it in business. Clayton Christensen noted, “If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find a predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification.”

We see it in startups. Steve Blank notes that many startups incur what he calls “organizational debt”: “all the people/culture compromises made to ‘just get it done’ in the early stages of a startup.” Common examples: a lack of good onboarding and training, missing job descriptions, chaotic compensation, puny HR budgets, and more. While these compromises can help keep the cash burn rate down, they “can turn a growing company into a chaotic nightmare.”

We see it in our climate. We’re making a harrowing gamble with our children’s future as we fail to address the gathering dangers of climate change.

We see it in our health. Many of us are sitting longer, eating poorly, sleeping less, and pinging through life in a state of perpetual busyness or burnout.

We see it in our relationships. Caught up in our careers, we lose touch with family and friends—something we’re likely to regret. Australian nurse Bronnie Ware, working in palliative care, found that two of the top regrets of people as they approached their death were: wishing they hadn’t worked so hard, and wishing they had stayed in touch with their friends.

We see it in parenting. Years ago, a colleague of mine, also a father of young children, said a few words that changed me as a parent: “They’re only young once.”

We see it in our careers. When we’re young and in school, we face pressures about what we’re going to do next, with expectations from parents and peers, and without much basis for making big decisions. Too often we make big decisions based on the pressures of the moment in ways that don’t stand the test of time. We follow the herd into that high-status profession. Or we choose solely based on the paycheck.

We see it in life. One day there will be a reckoning for the choices we’ve made. Did we fall into the following short-game traps?

Conforming to what others expect.

Drifting through life without direction.

Staying in a job we don’t like.

Getting nowhere (or nowhere good) in a professional hamster wheel.

Deferring our dreams because it’s “not the right time.”

Settling forgood enough.”

Continuing to climb even though we’re on the wrong ladder.

The idea of playing the long game isn’t new. Thousands of years ago, Aristotle advised, “Plan with your whole life in mind.”

Now more than ever we need to reorient our life and work to the long game.

Questions for Reflection:

  • In what areas—business, health, relationships, parenting, careers, life—are you playing the short game?
  • What ideas do you have to start making changes?
  • Who can you connect with for help and accountability?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, check out his Free Guide. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.”

Designing Your Work for Flow

 

We’ve all heard of flow—that remarkable state of being in the zone and operating at our best. Many of us have experienced it.

But what exactly is it? And how do we get into it?

First, we note that the deep concentration and absorption associated with flow is becoming much harder to attain these days with all our alluring devices and their dopamine-driving distractions.

Just when we need it most, it’s becoming more and more elusive.

Complete Absorption

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, a psychology professor now at Claremont Graduate University, has dedicated much of his life to studying flow. In his interviews with athletes, artists, chess players, and rock climbers, he found that many of them moved into a state of flow—a “state of complete absorption in an activity and situation.”

Why did he call it “flow”? Many of the people he interviewed described the experience as if a rushing current of water carried them along. Writer Elizabeth Gilbert in her book Big Magic captures it beautifully:

“Sometimes, when I’m in the midst of writing, I feel like I am suddenly walking on one of those moving sidewalks that you find in a big airport terminal… I can feel myself being gently propelled by some exterior force. Something is carrying me along—something powerful and generous…. I lose track of time and space and self…. I only rarely experience this feeling, but it’s the most magnificent sensation imaginable when it arrives. I don’t think there is a more perfect happiness to be found in life than this state, except perhaps falling in love.”

Csikszentmihalyi characterizes flow as a state of “optimal experience”—of almost effortless attention and peak performance. In flow, he says, we feel “a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment that is long cherished and that becomes a landmark in memory for what life should be like.”

Flow changes everything. Once you experience it, you’re changed forever, having glimpsed a different way of working. After jockey Red Pollard’s come-back ride aboard Seabiscuit at the famous “hundred grander” at Santa Anita, a spectator said Pollard looked like “a man who temporarily had visited Olympus and still was no longer for this world.”

In flow, according to Csikszentmihalyi, “Attention is fully invested in the task at hand, and the person functions at his or her fullest capacity…. You’re so involved in what you’re doing you aren’t thinking about yourself as separate from the immediate activity. You’re no longer a participant observer, only a participant. You’re moving in harmony with something else you’re part of.”

Nature of Flow

What is flow, exactly? Flow involves three elements:

  • Complete absorption in an activity
  • Lack of anxiety about losing control
  • Altered sense of time

The last one is a telltale sign. Recall those times when you’re so engrossed in the activity that you’re astonished when you discover how much time has passed in the meantime. It feels timeless.

The Body and Brain in Flow

Flow isn’t just a poetic description of a magical state but also a bona fide physiological phenomenon. When in flow, according to researchers, our heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and our facial muscles relax. Neurological studies show that the brain expends less energy during flow compared to when it’s wrestling with a problem.

Flow is associated with a decrease in “psychic entropy”: an anxious state of mind, common for many of us, in which our brain is stuck in a frustrating loop of concern and disarray, with fragmented attention. With that dialed down or switched off, we’re able to engage fully and enjoy the experience.

Flow and Performance

How does flow affect performance? According to Csikszentmihalyi, “a host of studies have found a strong positive relationship between flow and performance.” He notes that flow is positively associated with artistic and scientific creativity, learning, effective teaching, peak performance in sports, and even skill development. The latter is important, because it means that the more we can get into flow, the better we can get at our chosen activity.

According to the research, flow experiences are fairly rare, but almost any kind of activity—work, studies, hobbies—can produce them. So how do we achieve flow?

Conditions for Flow

According to the research, there are three necessary conditions for flow:

  • Clear set of goals
  • Clear and immediate feedback (so we can tell if we’re advancing toward our goals)
  • Balance between perceived challenges and skills, warranting our full attention (otherwise we’d get bored with too little challenge and anxious with too much challenge)

Here’s where things get really interesting. Flow is not some mystical state bestowed upon us by flow gremlins. It’s a mental state that we can invite by designing our work and context to meet these conditions.

Most of us live and work in a context today that makes achieving flow about as likely as winning the lottery. To invite flow, we need to get disciplined and systematic about doing what computer scientist Cal Newport calls “deep work”: working for extended periods with full concentration on a single task, free from distraction.

How to do this? In his book, Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World, he recommends that we decide where we’ll work (a pleasant, quiet place) and for how long and how (with rituals, rules, and standard processes). We also need breaks built into our day to allow us to recharge—and to let our subconscious mind wander.

Perhaps most importantly, we must minimize distractions.

Distractions block flow and open the floodgates to psychic entropy. Too many of us have surrendered to a life of shallow work and distractions.

What could we do with a life of deep work infused with flow?

Questions for Reflection:

  • When have you been in a state of flow?
  • What was the context, and what were you doing?
  • What ideas do you have for designing your work—and that of your team, if you have one—to invite flow?

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from his books, check out his Free Guide. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship.”

Leadership and Psychological Safety in Teams

The problems in far too many organizations today are legion:

  • Unproductive, boring meetings
  • Astonishing amounts of wasted time
  • Avoidance of sensitive issues
  • Lack of full engagement
  • Reluctance to provide candid, constructive feedback
  • Political games and hidden agendas

Sound familiar?

The effects are far-reaching, from low quality work to employee turnover. According to a Corporate Executive Board study, “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news,” and only “19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.”

“So many times, I’ve heard people say, ‘I knew our strategy wasn’t working, but no one was willing to tell our CEO. No one wanted to lose their job.” –Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

Andrew Kakabadse found that an alarmingly high percentage of top management team members in countries around the world report that there are issues not discussed because they are too sensitive, as shown below.

Lack of Dialogue among Top Management Team about Sensitive Issues (% of top management team members reporting that there are issues that should be aired but are not discussed because they’re too sensitive)

Source: Andrew Kakabadse, The Success Formula: How Smart Leaders Deliver Outstanding Value (Bloomsbury, 2015).

A related problem is groupthink—when people feel pressure to conform to an artificial consensus instead of pressure-testing ideas thoroughly without fear or favor.

What’s to be done?

Psychological Safety

What’s needed—desperately in some cases—is what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and others call psychological safety: a shared sense that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking, such as floating a new idea for improving performance, raising a concern, or admitting a mistake.

Timothy R. Clark notes that psychological safety exists when people feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo—“all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished.”

Easier said than done.

Our neurological wiring helps explain why psychological safety is fragile: our brains process a raised voice or a cutting comment as a threat, triggering certain parts of the brain with a fight-or-flight response and shutting down the parts responsible for advanced reasoning and creativity. We become unable to think clearly just when we need it most.

Edmondson found that “Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence… in which speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded.”

She notes that speaking up is only the beginning. If a manager responds negatively when someone raises a concern, psychological safety is diminished or destroyed.

She also notes that “psychologically safe workplaces have a powerful advantage in competitive industries,” because they benefit from the feedback loops when customer service agents raise concerns with their managers or when line workers mention production problems to their supervisors, thereby identifying opportunities for improvement. In too many organizations, people are afraid to speak up, and so countless ideas are never shared.

The Importance of Trust—And Conflict

To create psychological safety we must build trust. Stephen M. R. Covey has noted that with high trust in organizations, speed increases and costs decrease.

Enter the work of Patrick Lencioni, who has noted the value of conflict in organizations (productive, not destructive, conflict). Most people view conflict as something to be avoided, because it can be awkward and uncomfortable.

Healthy teams use conflict productively, for example, to work through a difficult problem or understand the root cause of a breakdown. Lencioni observes that the best leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold.

“Weak leaders want agreement. Strong leaders want the truth.” -Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

Most teams run from conflict like it’s the plague. The first “dysfunction of a team” noted by Lencioni is an absence of trust. When people aren’t comfortable being vulnerable in the group (due to a lack of psychological safety), it’s impossible to build a foundation of trust because people are not open about their mistakes, weaknesses, and needs for help.

This tees up the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Without trust, team members can’t engage in an unfiltered and vigorous debate, instead relying on veiled discussions and guarded comments that don’t get anywhere near the core issues.

“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork…. Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal…. The most important action that a leader must take to encourage the building of trust on a team is to demonstrate vulnerability first.” -Patrick Lencioni

By showing vulnerability, leaders model the way and open a space where others feel comfortable doing the same.

The results of disciplined attention to these matters over time can be extraordinary. With high levels of psychological safety, fueled by vulnerability and trust, people rise to new heights of performance and engagement.

Psychological safety, while fragile and rare, is precious and powerful. The best leaders cultivate it carefully.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training and development venture. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards).

To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from his books, check out his Free Guide. Or check out his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship.”

How to Give Effective Feedback—A Communication Superpower

Giving effective feedback is a powerful skill. When done well, it can be a big performance booster. When done poorly, a disaster bringing fear, discomfort, and resentment.

At its best, feedback is a great gift that can build trust and respect. At its worst, a spiral to anguish and despair. So tread carefully.

According to decades of research from Dr. John Hattie (2008), feedback is among the most powerful influences on levels of achievement.*

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”Bill Gates

Unfortunately, few people have learned how to give effective feedback or take the time to do it well, in part because of the fear associated with hurting feelings or damaging a relationship.

Through feedback you can provide information about how someone is doing on the way to reaching a goal. But it can also derail their learning, motivation, and performance if not handled well.

Note that feedback is not advice: “You need more examples in your report” is an example of advice, not feedback. Here are examples of feedback:

  • (Golf coach to a golfer): “Each time you swung and missed, you raised your head as you swung so you didn’t really have your eye on the ball. On the one you hit hard, you kept your head down and saw the ball.”
  • (Reader to a writer): “The first few paragraphs kept my full attention. The scene painted was vivid and interesting. But then the dialogue became hard to follow. As a reader, I was confused about who was talking, and the sequence was puzzling, so I became less engaged.” (Source: Grant Wiggins.)*

Here are some best practices for giving feedback:*

  1. Private Setting: The place where you give feedback should be private and neutral. Make the recipient as comfortable as possible, and avoid whenever possible public scrutiny that will take focus off the issue at hand. In-person feedback is much better than written, because so many important nuances get lost in emails and text.
  2. Mindset: Check your mindset to ensure that you come to the feedback session with a mindset of service, kindness, and openness, and that you’re presuming the best about the person (e.g., that they’re doing the best they can, or there may be obstacles that you don’t know about). Begin with a mindset of wanting the person to thrive and excel while feeling trusted and supported.
  3. Positive Experience: Make it a positive experience for the recipient. The purpose of feedback is to help the person improve. Note that feedback should contain positive and negative information about how their actions are affecting their progress toward goals. Simple praise is not enough. Strive for a high ratio of positive to negative observations to ensure the response is not dejection and thus counterproductive. Be kind and considerate. Developing your emotional intelligence is essential.
  4. Goal-Referenced: Indicate whether the person is on track toward goals or in need of a change. If the latter, brainstorm with them ways to get back on track.
  5. Specific and Actionable: Help the recipient answer the question, “What specifically should I do more or less of next time?” (Thus, “You did that incorrectly” or “Good job” do not cut it.) The Center for Creative Leadership points to the “SBI method”:
    • Situation: Describe the situation.
    • Behavior: Describe the actual, observed behavior being discussed. Stick to the facts and avoid opinions and judgments.
    • Impact: Describe the results of the behavior.
  6. User-Friendly: Feedback must be accepted by the recipient to be helpful. View it from his/her perspective and present it clearly. Note the most important elements (not a long list of items without priorities).
  7. Timely and Ongoing: The sooner the better, so the actions are fresh. Too many managers save feedback for performance reviews, which is way too late. Feedback should be frequent and ongoing.

“A global study of over 1,000 organizations in more than 150 countries found that more than one-third of all employees had to wait more than three months to get feedback from their manager; nearly two-thirds wish they received more feedback from their colleagues.” James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge

  1. Curious and Open: Invite their perspective and input. Search for mutual agreement and be open to their ideas. Ask them what ideas they have for moving forward. Ensure that they maintain a sense of accomplishment, competence, and agency.
  2. Humble: Research has shown that people aren’t good raters of other people’s performance (or their own). We vastly overestimate our ability to do this well. (It’s called the “idiosyncratic rater effect.”) We assume we are clear and correct in our observations and judgments, but this is often much less true than we think.

Why Feedback Gets Derailed. To be effective at giving feedback, we must step back and understand why it is so difficult and dangerous. Think back to when you received feedback from a teacher in front of class, or from an intense and critical boss. Feedback gets derailed when:

  • It focuses on the person and not the actions
  • It comes across as one-sided, with the giver of feedback assuming they are right, they have all the relevant information, or they alone have the key to the only way forward
  • It feels like an attack, not a gesture of solidarity and mutual commitment to improvement

When giving feedback, we’re not just in the land of communication and leadership but also of psychology and neuroscience. Our brains are brilliant at discounting or rejecting feedback. Our egos get engaged. We get defensive. We deflect attention away from our flaws and mistakes. We focus on what we want to hear and block out what we don’t.

“When we give feedback, we notice that the receiver isn’t good at receiving it. When we receive feedback, we notice that the giver isn’t good at giving it.” -Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well 

We discredit or attack the one giving feedback, judging them extra harshly to protect our precious and wounded ego. Much of this is unconscious (an automatic triggering of our “fight or flight” response in sympathetic nervous system), so even harder for us to avoid (without strong self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness practices).

The activation of this part of our brain reduces our ability to take in new information and impairs our learning, thereby defeating the very purpose of feedback. Professor Richard Boyatzis summarizes research noting that critical feedback engages strong negative emotion, which “inhibits access to existing neural circuits and invokes cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairment.”*

The key is avoiding these negative triggers and taking care to engage more productive parts of the brain: the parasympathetic nervous system, associated with “a sense of well-being, better immune system functioning, and cognitive, emotional, and perceptual openness.” (Boyatzis)*

The way to do this is to notice what people did well, encourage them to reflect on and continue it, and add nuances or ideas to the understanding of the drivers of positive performance. Note what worked and ask the person what they were thinking or doing at the time. As Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall say in “The Feedback Fallacy” in Harvard Business Review, “replay each small moment of excellence to your team.”

“As a leader, part of your job is to consistently let people know what they are doing well to reinforce those positive behaviors and to build emotional capital. Positive feedback makes work more enjoyable and more productive.”Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations

The other problem is that some people walk around giving unsolicited advice. The assumption is that they’re right, others are wrong, others need correcting, and the act of doling out advice is like a gift from above. More often, though, it trounces on people’s feelings and makes things worse. People don’t want to be fixed. They want to feel supported and valued as they go through their own journey, including wins, losses, and learnings. We all want to be the heroes of our own story.

Receiving Feedback. Feedback is a two-way street. It must also be received well. That requires an ability to listen well: focusing intently on what the other person is saying (not using the time while they’re speaking to think through your counterpoints) and being open to their point of view (not getting defensive). When listening well, we ask questions, share our feelings, and summarize points while checking for accuracy and understanding. The conversation builds naturally as we go to new places together.

“Really pay attention to negative feedback and solicit it, particularly from friends. … Hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful… Constantly seek criticism. A well thought out critique of whatever you’re doing is as valuable as gold.” -Elon Musk

“On the Leadership Practices Inventory… the statement on which leaders consistently report engaging in least frequently is ‘asks for feedback on how my actions affect other people’s performance.’ Openness to feedback, especially negative feedback, is characteristic of the best learners.”James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge

Giving and receiving feedback well is a communication superpower. Use it wisely.

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*Sources:

  • Leo Babauta, “How to Give Kind Criticism, And Avoid Being Critical,” Zen Habits, undated
  • Ken Blanchard Companies, “Take the Fear Out of Feedback,” Perspectives, 2016
  • Richard Boyatzis, “Neuroscience and Leadership: The Promise of Insights,” Ivey Business Journal, January / February 2011
  • Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, “The Feedback Fallacy,” Harvard Business Review, March 2019
  • Center for Creative Leadership, “Immediately Improve Your Talent Development with the SBI Feedback Model,” Leading Effectively articles, undated
  • John Hattie, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (Routledge, 2008)
  • Robert Nash and Naomi Winstone, “Why Even the Best Feedback Can Bring Out the Worst in Us,” BBC, March 8, 2017
  • Grant Wiggins, “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback,” ASCD: Educational Leadership, September 2012

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author who trains, teaches, and speaks on leadership and personal development. He runs Gregg Vanourek LLC, a training venture focused on helping you lead yourself, lead others, and lead change. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards).

To get Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living and free book chapters from Gregg’s books, check out his Free Guide.