Leadership Insights Blog with Shelley Row

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ConsensusWe talk about creating consensus all the time.  What we do, however, is have a meeting and hope to reach agreement without appreciating that “consensus” really is and the benefits it provides when done well.

Consensus when well-executed will:

  • Generate a wide range of ideas and discussion;
  • Feel satisfying to participants; and
  • Create a collaborative spirit.

Range of ideas. Consensus brings together people from a range of backgrounds who represents varying perspectives of an issue. Just as important are their behavior characteristics in a meeting environment. There we have people who are vocal, quiet, fast thinkers, careful thinkers, data-driven decision-makers, relationship-oriented engagers and more. Unless these differences are consciously recognized and managed, it is easy for individuals to feel drowned out, annoyed or over-looked.  It’s most effective to use techniques designed to equalize voices so that a wide range of input and opinions will be generated and discussed without favoring the loudest, most insistent voices. Consider, for example, real-time polling apps or simply going around the table to give everyone a chance to share their thoughts.  Also valuable is the use of a communication assessment tool. Used in advance, these tools inform participants and organizers of differences in communication styles.

Satisfaction. Consensus is best achieved when people feel engaged and heard. Inevitably within group discussions some angst emerges unless carefully managed.  Angst may arise when people don’t feel that their idea was heard, or when conversation strays into tangents that waste time, or when they are interrupted before completing their thought. These situations cause participants to pull back and keep their thoughts to themselves, …that is until they are in the hallway complaining at the coffee break. For consensus to feel satisfying, the use of reflective listening skills is imperative. Reflective listening not only ensures that people have a turn, but that their ideas are heard and understood. You must also attend to the emotion in the room.  Negative, frustrated or aggravated feelings shut off consensus. Research in neuroscience shows that the brain becomes more agitated when negative emotions are suppressed. The brain calms down and returns to cognitive functioning when emotion is acknowledged. With attentiveness listening, the ebb and flow of emotion is managed within the consensus building environment so that negative emotions are quickly diffused through skilled acknowledgment. The result is a sense of satisfaction with the process. Participants leave feeling heard even if they don’t agree.

Collaboration. When you skillfully build consensus, the group feels like a team with a common cause rather than disparate individuals with individual agendas.  Again, insights come from neuroscience. Research shows that people who feel connected with a common cause are more likely to collaborate, feel empathy and trust each other.  Conversely, should an us/them atmosphere develop, research indicates that trust and empathy are lost and the likelihood of collaboration diminishes.  Build a sense of cohesion by naming the group, setting regular meeting times, rewarding the group process and acknowledging the work of the group.

Next time you are tasked with creating consensus, give it some thought. Consensus building is more than hosting a meeting with flip charts and colored dots.  It involves the skilled understanding of the people in the room, artful engagement for idea generation, management of communication tendencies, validation of feelings and the creation of a common goal.

Photo credit: vantuz / 123RF Stock Photo

EmotionsIn leadership positions it’s inevitable that situations arise that generate an emotional reaction. Some emotions are low grade but others are like five-alarm fires. We are taught to control our emotions in the workplace to be credible, strong and unshakable. “Don’t let them see you sweat.” “There’s no place for feelings at work.” The emotionless approach is a badge of honor but it may hinder your leadership effectiveness. Here’s why.

Let’s say you are working with an employee to change the way their approach to management of a project. You’ve discussed it again and again. You think they understand then, out of the blue, they use the old approach. It isn’t a deal breaker for the project but it annoys you. How many times do you have to discuss this?

At that moment, the amygdala in your brain (your alarm bell) has gone off. They amygdala calls on long-term memory that confirms the many times you counseled the employee on this topic. The amygdala sends the alert that something has gone awry and it triggers an emotional reaction.

As the leader, you know that you don’t want to yell, stomp your feet or behave inappropriately. So what are your options?

Suppress your reaction. You fight the emotional reaction by reasoning with yourself. “I’m not going to let this get to me. It isn’t worth getting upset about. Don’t think about it. Let it go.” Have you noticed that the more you say, “I’m not going to think about this” the more you think about it? Exactly. Research validates that the harder you think about suppressing the emotion the more engaged the amygdala is. Suppression does not reduce the brain’s reactivity. Further, the energy you expend to suppress the reaction takes away the energy you need for memory. You are less effective due to the lack of resources for cognitive functioning of your brain.
Clearly, this doesn’t work so what does?

Consider the emotion. Thinking about emotional suppression doesn’t work but consciously examining your feelings does. Research shows that people who probe their feelings actually deactivate the amygdala. I know – it seems counterintuitive. But when you hold your emotion up to the light, roll it around, and give it a name, it validates the emotion and calms the amygdala. An added bonus is that the cognitive part of your brain remains online. Your memory is not impaired and you can more objectively view the situation and your options.

Reframe the situation. You can also reframe or reappraise the situation. In my experience, this works best after you name the emotion and calm the amygdala somewhat. Then you ask, “Is there another way of looking at this?” Your brain brings up the stored memory and context. However, just because you remember it doesn’t mean it’s accurate or exclusive. In this instance, perhaps the employee believed the situation was different and, therefore, warranted an altered approach. Or perhaps the employee is going through a difficult personal situation and their cognitive ability (and memory) is impaired. What are the other possibilities? Reframing the situation calms the amygdala and brings cognitive consideration to the situation.

When those emotional situations hit – stop trying to suppress the emotion. It only makes it worse. Instead, acknowledge the emotion, name it and ask if there are other ways to look at the situation. You will find yourself with a calmer frame of mind which enables you to choose the best response…the response worthy of a leader.

Years ago, when I led an office at the Department of Transportation, we invested in a 360 assessment for the top managers and me. I looked forward to the results because I appreciate getting others’ perspectives.  Or at least I thought I did— until I got the results.  The results showed me as two different people. Seen through the eyes of my peers I was similar to how I saw myself.  But the view as seen through the eyes of my staff was not pretty. I learned that I was great at staying focused on achieving our goals…at all costs. However, the staff, through their scores, showed me that the office atmosphere was like a cattle drive (go, go and go until we get there). The staff craved attention, connection and a sense of family. Work just wasn’t fun. I suspect it isn’t just my office that’s like that. Fun is not at the top of the list of most work environments. And yet, research shows that humor is a powerful tool in the workplace. Here’s why.

  1. Task perseverance. Research indicates that humor provides the brain a respite that reenergizes it for the next task – even tedious tasks. Consider this research. In a study conducted by Australian National University management professors David Cheng and Lu Wang, they found that people who watched a funny video clip before a task spent approximately twice as long on a tiresome task compared with people who watched neutral or positive but not funny videos.[i] Would your office benefit from a two-time increase in persistence with just a short break to watch something humorous? It’s time to rethink a few minutes for a YouTube break.
  2. Morale boost. A good laugh feels good. It’s a simple as that. Laughter can make a long, arduous and stressful day a little less arduous and stressful.  Imagine what it would be like to have a joke of the day at staff meetings or funny video of the day. Within a few minutes, people are smiling and feeling reenergized.
  3. Feeling of connection. Laughing together creates a shared experience that fosters connection. I recall one of my staff meetings that happened shortly after the movie “Up” came out. In that animated movie the dog, Dug, is happily talking (yes, talking) to his new friend when he sees a squirrel that jerks his head to the side (Google it… you’ll laugh…promise… cross my heart). In the staff meeting, I described the scene and did an imitation of the “squirrel” moment. I wasn’t trying to be funny but I still remember the laughter. We felt like a team for that moment – all from sharing a good laugh.

What can you do to cultivate laughter in your office? Give a prize for the best joke; show a 2-minute funny video once a week; delegate humor to the staff to find and share?  What about sharing the silliest selfies? Use your imagination to find ways to bring a good laugh into the workplace.  You’ll reap the rewards of connection, improved morale and enhanced focus on work. And enhanced focus will help to guard against the next “squirrel” distraction!


[i] Cheng, D and Wang, L. (2015) Examining the energizing effects of humor: The influence of humor on persistence behavior. Journal of Business and Psychology, 30, 759-772.

Copyright: warrengoldswain / 123RF Stock Photo


The brain really likes feeling important, but it’s not just about giving out raises or promotions (although that’s okay, too). As a manager, there are simple ways to activate the brain’s reward response by helping people feel important and give them a sense of clout. And, you can activate the brain’s threat response just as easy…in fact, you can activate the threat response easier.  Let’s look at some tips to give clout and tips to keep from taking away clout.

Give Clout: Think about circumstances that make you feel a wee-bit important: the really-big boss complements you by name; your input is specifically requested; a colleague demonstrates respect for your idea; you are invited to lunch with the inner-circle of top performers; your project team receives an award; the client tells your boss about the good work you do. With each example, your brain does a happy dance.

How can you, as a manager, create that same brain-based happy dance for your staff, team, or client? For top performers, send a hand-written thank you note, go for coffee together, give a shout-out in an important meeting, or offer them a career-development conversation. The gift of your attention feels like clout.

For clients or citizens, you might: call the client for their input on a key decision; tell the citizen that you appreciate their dedication to the project; send a thank you note at the end of the job noting a positive influence the client or citizen had; or praise the active citizen in a public meeting. The key to applying this brain switch is sincerity.

Lose Clout: Without thinking about it, we can easily do behaviors that diminish clout from staff or teams. This time, let’s think about it so you can stop this from happening.

Think of times when you felt sidelined or marginalized despite your best efforts.  You worked hard and someone else got the credit. You are ready for that next big assignment but don’t get the opportunity. You are ready for the meeting to discuss options but you can’t get a word in edgewise.

From a manager’s perspective, it helps to be mindful of the impact your words and choices have on people.  I’m not suggesting that you pander or give everyone a reward. I am suggesting that you be aware of work effort and the impact your words – or lack of them – can have. I rarely run into staff who say their bosses complement them too much (frankly, I’ve never had that happen).

Try this. Double check yourself in meetings to make sure that all ideas are heard – especially the quiet, reserved people. They have lots to contribute but may struggle to get a verbal foothold in a lively meeting. Have you asked for input from those on the front lines of a situation? And in those instances where you must have a tough performance conversation with an employee, don’t mention it in front of others.

The rewarded brain is more likely to be productive than the threatened brain – and the owner of the rewarded brain is more likely to stick around.  Take a few minutes to tweak your approach to give not take clout.


Image Copyright: yarruta / 123RF Stock Photo


“But it’s not fair!”

Have you ever heard that from someone on your staff or from a frustrated colleague? At one time or another, everyone has felt the pangs of unfairness.  There’s a reason for that. The brain is wired to easily detect and react to perceptions of unfairness.

Your brain constantly scans the environment and compares its observations to what it expects. If the situation it encounters is similar enough to those expectations, the brain feels safe and comfortable. If the brain senses something it perceives as unfair, alarm bells go off and so does the threat center in the brain.  And the bad news is that the brain will sense unfairness more easily than it senses fairness.  I know, that’s not fair, but it’s how the brain works.  So, let’s consider what you can do to keep the brain happy and productive.

Explain the rationale. Work is a busy place. You make decisions all day every day. It may not occur to you to slow down and explain the basis of decisions – particularly personnel decisions. In my office, perceptions of unfairness showed up in the application of policies such as flexible work schedules, teleworking privileges and who was chosen to attend conferences and training.  “It’s not fair! He went last year.”  “It’s not fair. Why can’t I telework, too?” In those moments, I realized the importance of explaining the rationale in my head.  And that means there must be a rationale in your head (more on that next). It helps to share your interpretation of personnel policies with the entire team. They might not agree but at least they know there is a logical thought process working in the background.  Have you taken the time out of a busy work day to explain the rationale behind your decisions? It will help your staff understand and will reduce the feelings of unfairness.

Challenge your reasoning. You can’t explain your rationale if you don’t have a rationale. It is instructive to try out several different scenarios.  For example, on one hand, you may be completely comfortable allowing Herb to telework but you’re not comfortable allowing Joanne to telework.  Okay…what’s the difference? Challenge your own reasoning.  Is it that you trust Herb but not Joanne?  If so, what gives you that feeling?  Unintended bias can come into play, too. Maybe you’ve known Herb for longer or he’s a buddy.  Joanne has a different approach to work that feels unfamiliar to you.  Challenge your own thinking.  Is your closeness with Herb influencing your decision? Whatever your own situation, work through your own reasoning to ensure that you really are being fair.

Listen and validate. When a person’s internal alarm bells go off, they may not be articulate in a reasonable way. They want (need) to vent, to express their frustration, to vocalize their displeasure.  Let them. Your job is to listen and validate the feelings.  Validation doesn’t mean agreement but it does mean truly hearing their complaint and their feelings around it. If you’ve thought through your position clearly and honestly, you can remain calm and centered as they vent. Put yourself in their shoes.  Repeat back the situation from their perspective which ensures that you truly understand. That will help create a calmer environment. The important thing is that staff know they will get a “fair” hearing.

Not every situation can be fair, but with these skills, you help the brain move past its sense of unfairness, deactivate the threat response and move on in a productive way.



get connectedIs there someone you work with who could use a little motivation?  Could you use a little motivation? You can’t motivate someone else if you can’t motivate yourself and, frankly, we could all use a little motivation sometime. Too often we think of motivation as money or a promotion but intrinsic motivation comes from inside and is powerful.  How can you leverage findings about brain function to connect with intrinsic motivation? There are five ways to aid your brain or other’s brains to feel motivated by feeling rewarded.

As humans, we are designed as social creatures. In fact, we feel good when we feel connected with others. According to a Simply Psychology article, research by Solomon Asch in 1951 illustrated the strong desire to fit in under pressure. Asch showed groups of people a line of defined length and asked them to select the line of the same length from a series of three. All except one in the group were told to select the wrong answer. The test was to see whether the one person felt pressure to change their answer and conform with the group. Of twelve trials, 75 percent changed their answer to conform at least once even though it was clearly the wrong answer.[i] Your staff and teams feel the same pressure to fit in and be part of a perceived “in-group.” You naturally want to connect with those like you because it makes the brain feel good.

Additionally, recent research shows that for those with whom we feel connected, we demonstrate more empathy, trust, and cooperation. Would it help productivity in your office if people were more cooperative? You know the answer. But, at the office we experience in-groups and out-groups. Motivation is enhanced when we feel connected.

It’s easy to think of in/out groups based on gender and race, but it goes beyond that. Do you have multiple offices? Perhaps you noticed reluctant collaboration or less motivation when working between offices. Has your company merged? If so, there may be a lack of trust between members of the formerly different companies.  When I worked for a professional association, we had a headquarter’s office and state chapters. We did our best to work together but it wasn’t easy. We were parts of different groups and didn’t have connection.

Thankfully, the brain readily accepts new connections. How can you create more connection?

You can create more connection for yourself or between others on a team.

Teams create a sense of connection by setting common goals, naming themselves as a team, jointly establishing their performance norms, and conducting team activities (field trips, happy hours, lunches). You can also create individual connections by seeking out commonalities. The gruffest colleague may soften when connecting about kids, sports, or a shared hobby. Connection fosters greater trust and collaboration.

And for you, personally, who can you connect with that would instill more motivation?  Invite them to coffee or lunch and listen for opportunities to connect.  I’m a member of a speaking association and while they are a wonderful, talented, generous group of people, they can be a little intimidating and effervescent for this introvert.  I sought out the organization’s president because, as a scientist, I sensed a quiet thoughtfulness.  Over lunch, which he graciously accepted, I found a kindred spirit who gave me valuable advice about how to better connect with my high-energy, uber-talented colleagues. I left feeling more motivated because I felt that I had a connection in the association.

Who can you connect with?  How can you help others find connections within your organization?  Both will increase motivation and, frankly, it makes coming to work more fun.



[i]. McLeod, S. A. (2008). Asch Experiment. Retrieved from www.simplypsychology.org/asch-conformity.html. Accessed December 1, 2016.

There’s a reason that we experience resistance to change whether it’s us personally or staff. The brain wants the world it experiences today to be as expected based on its past. The brain likes “the way we’ve always done it before.” That’s easy, comfortable and certain.

Your brain constantly scans the environment and compares what it observes to what it expects based on stored experience. If the observations of today are similar enough to expectations, the brain feels certain and comfortable. If there are differences, however, the brain is uncertain and that activates the threat response. Brain alarm bells go off.

Of course, uncertainty and change are everywhere. Situations that create a sense of uncertainty happen frequently, such as lack of transparency from management, no performance feedback, leadership instability, and ad hoc policies and procedures. Sometimes you need to change processes; there will be leadership changes periodically; and new policies are inevitable. How can you as a manager create more certainty during uncertain times? How can you help the brain feel certain during periods of uncertainty? The answer: stabilize everything you can.

Share all that you can. Lack of information breeds uncertainty and that negatively impacts motivation. We naturally make up stories in the absence of information.  For example, for government employees, administration change creates uncertainty. Will the new leadership be easy or tough to work with? Will they be supportive of key projects or not?  When companies merge or are bought by new owners, uncertainty abounds and so do fabricated stories.

Leaders in those situations tell me, “But I don’t know anything else” or “The information is confidential.” Yes…and even in those situations you can say something and stabilize everything that is NOT in flux.

For government leaders, you activate certainty when you say, “We don’t know much about the in-coming administration. But here’s what we do know. We do good work; we have a solid staff; and we will prepare information to clearly and concisely explain our work so we are ready for the new leaders.” (Note: The clear action step activates both certainty and control.)

For leaders in organizations undergoing significant change, you can say, “I know you are concerned about the future of our organization. Admittedly, we may experience some changes and until there is more information about those changes, here are three things we will do now to move forward. We will continue our focus on streamlined production; we will focus on serving our clients; and we will retool our project management process to ensure on-time, high-quality work. This is the core of our work and it continues as always.”

Add boundaries. Another way to create certainty is to establish boundaries. Maybe there’s a new process that you want to implement in the office but you encounter push back: “What’s wrong with our current process?” “We’ll have to train everybody and that will take so much time!” These reactions are the brain’s alarm bells going off due to uncertainty about the change. Counteract the uncertainty by using boundaries.  You could implement just one part of the new process so that there is less change initially.  Or you could do a six-month trial and evaluate the pros and cons with the staff.  Either way, you use boundaries to constrain the change so that it feels less threatening.

The bottom line: stabilize everything you can through your words, reassurances, honesty and incremental change. You will calm the brain, minimize anxiety and increase motivation.