The Voice for Insightful Leadership with Shelley Row, P.E.

Your Search for connection

Rain. All day. Grey and dreary.

Yay! I love a rainy day. Why would anyone find a damp, overcast day appealing? Here’s what I observe:

On a rainy day, the to-do list is shorter because some things can’t be done or are less convenient in the rain. I focus my attention more on a rainy day.

A rainy day feels refreshing as if the world is clean and less cluttered.

A rainy day has a slower pace. I’m more likely to read a book, take a nap, and think new thoughts.

So how do I transfer these observations from a rainy day to a regular work day?

Focus. Shorten the to-do list and focus. Not everything has to be done today or done by me. Let’s all take a moment and remove a few things from the list. We are left with less to do and more room to get them done. Send the other tasks to someone else or delete them entirely. Admit it, we all have something on the list that’s been there for ages. It can’t be THAT important if it’s still waiting to be done.

Declutter. Every item—pen, note pad, stack of papers, random business cards, another stack of papers, a book, an iPad—adds clutter to your world and to your mind. Consider hiring a skip and if you don’t know much about skip hire, you can learn more here. The brain uses small bits of energy to scan, process and label as irrelevant each of those items. That activity drains your brain power that you could use for productive tasks. Take a moment and organize the desk and the work space around you. Declutter and observe that your productivity increases. If you’re on a serious mission to declutter your home, check out these sheds for sale.

Slow down. Now that you are more focused and decluttered, you can slow the pace and do higher quality work – work that is thoughtful, considered and insightful. Most of us live in a frantic world. Those few who offer insight – insight that required astute observation – stand out. Who has time to think or think differently? You do. That’s who. But only with focus, less clutter and a slower pace. It’s during the slowness that the brain makes new, innovative connections. It’s where we find an aha-moment.

I confess that it’s hard for me to focus, declutter, and slow down. In the last few years, I trained myself to be at a frenetic pace. I’m not the only one. You know who you are! But we can retrain ourselves. I’ll give it a try if you will.

Imagine the rain. Focus on one or two things; remove everything else from sight, take a breath, settle your brain….and let your mind wander slowly. Allow the insight to come. It will be worth it.

Copyright: giedriusok / 123RF Stock Photo

Some time ago, I spoke at and facilitated an Executive Leadership Program for a notable association.  The speakers were a who’s who in that industry–successful business people with a solid track record.  There were sessions on responding to RFPs, auditing and accounting, business operations, and profitability. At the end of the program, the participants met in groups and identified their top three take-aways from the day, which we recorded.  One item rose to the top of the list: Do the right thing and be nice. The group discussed that it was interesting that profitability wasn’t the first item on everyone’s list – indeed, it only came up once. But every group commented on being nice and just caring.

So, what does that look like at work?  It all comes down to behavior. If we are being nice and caring, what are we doing? Gleaning from the discussion and from my experience, there are three behaviors that communicate care.

Seek First to Understand. That’s from Stephen Covey’s classic, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. He teaches that listening is a key skill. To do that, seek first to truly understand the other person’s point of view. Listen…truly listen. What we now know from neuroscience, is that when we listen and validate the other person’s comment or emotional state, it calms them.  They feel heard, and that settles the nervous system. It’s not that hard. But, you do have to restrain your impulse to dive in with your point.  Listen first. State it back. Hear them.  It shows you care about their opinion.

Speak strongly and politely. Somewhere along the way we forgot that being strong and confident are not mutually exclusive with politeness.  We can be strong and nice.  In fact, some of the strongest people I worked with embodied quiet calmness.  Without defensiveness, they could listen, hear, evaluate and come to a reasoned conclusion. I’ve seen caustic situations diffused when a manager lets the negative energy from another slide by and comment with calm understanding.  Even performance problems can be addressed with strength, without giving in and while being polite. We forget sometimes that politeness goes a long way.

Be interested in more than just their work.  One of the leaders who spoke at the program told the group that every Friday in the middle of the day, he called his staff just to chat.  He intentionally did not talk about work but rather used that time to connect on a personal level. Connection was another key theme from the program. For those of us (like me, I confess) who derive pleasure from checking off accomplishments, we can forget the importance of connecting personally. And yet, we feel more committed and motivated when we feel that people at work care about more than work. All it takes is an honest inquiry – How are things with your kids?  Which college did your daughter select? What did you think about the game last night?

Yes, profitability is essential but what these future executives learned is that they can get to profitability when their staff understands that they just care. Let’s face it, it’s just not that hard to be nice.

Copyright: thanaphiphat / 123RF Stock Photo

Head storiesYou’re in a long security line at the airport. A LONG line. A frazzled, middle-aged, perspiring, blonde woman rushes up from behind. “Excuse me! My plane is leaving! May I cut in line?” In that moment, what do you think? Perhaps some of the more gracious of us think, “Oh…poor thing. I hope she catches her flight.”  Others of us may think, “Really? Why is this my problem?” or “If she prepared better and planned ahead she wouldn’t be in this situation.” Honestly, I would probably be in the later camp.  Except that this time, the woman was me.

Two newsletter articles ago I wrote about the man who had a heart attack on the plane and probably died. I was so upset and flustered that I forgot I had a connecting flight. I realized it on the rental car shuttle in the wrong city.  To have any chance at making my connection I had to get back through the long security line. I was forced to politely ask for a favor from strangers.  Most were great. I only got a couple of exasperated looks. There was no time to explain the unusual circumstances (how often does a person have a massive heart attack on a plane?) that led to my predicament. I asked, said thank you, kept moving and ignored the looks.

At one time or another, we all created a story from circumstances and slim information. And then believe the story! The boss slings edgy comments at you in the meeting and you think, “Oh no! She’s dissatisfied with my work!” When the real situation is that she’s exhausted after landing at 1am.  Or a team member doesn’t get a deliverable in on time and you think, “NOW what are we going to do? He let us down.” But the real situation is that this team member was in the hospital emergency room all night with his kid’s asthma. The range of options is innumerable and we can’t image them all. Instead we create a story that usually includes us and believe it.

Those stories are destructive and stress inducing. It only takes a bit of perspective to put the stories in their rightful place which is to eliminate them.

  • Take in the situation. When disappointed or upset by a situation, take it in without judgment, and take a breath to slow down the mental storytelling that’s gearing up.
  • Detach you from the situation. When you hear the story beginning in your mind, remind yourself that the situation is not likely about you and that there is more going on than you know.
  • Reframe the situation. Remind yourself of the vast range of options that could be impacting this situation. Your assumptions are bound to be wrong and likely unfair. Open up to the possibilities.

I made my flight that day but only because person after person graciously allowed me through. They will never know the story of that day. And we may never know the real stories behind each situation we encounter but we can take a broader and kinder view that allows for options beyond our imagination.


marish / 123RF Stock Photo

“Just the facts: they speak for themselves.” That’s the approach many take when they want to persuade someone to their point of view.

But do they speak for themselves? Not so much.

From my technical background, I have observed a fact-based approach to persuasion many times but rarely successfully. It’s no wonder. The brain isn’t designed to respond to facts alone. Analytical people are responsive to reasoned arguments more often than others are; however, even they need to be motivated to pay attention. A logical argument takes a lot of energy and is less likely to work for most people

Thankfully, there are other persuasive techniques that are more promising. (Kevin Dutton’s work provides excellent insights into persuasion). After all, when persuading someone, the goal is to get to “yes,” you see (YES, UC).

1. You-focused. “What interests you about this issue?” And, “We want to address your questions first.” The word “you” is powerful. It is immediately relevant and it is always about our favorite subject. However, all too often, we are so preoccupied with our view that we think too little about theirs.

Before starting the persuasive argument, consider how the issue looks from their perspective. Why is it of interest to them? Given their background, what viewpoint are they likely to have and why? (This presumes that you did the research to know their background and preferences.) How can you put their interests in the forefront of the discussion? When you figure that out, start the discussion with that point of view. The first point can be the most influential.

2. Empathetic. People are more easily persuaded if they have a sense of relatedness, which leads to empathy. A lack of empathy can have the opposite effect. A 2002 study of doctors found that those with a less empathetic tone of voice were sued more often. Empathy counts a lot. Before beginning a persuasive discussion, take stock of the ways you connect with this person – schools, sports teams, background, and hobbies. Use examples or analogies based on these connections that reinforce your persuasive points. This is a step toward establishing empathy.

We like people better if we feel an empathetic connection. Mirror neurons help if we allow ourselves to notice the expressions, postures and feel of the other person. We start to feel what they feel. But we don’t pick up these subtle clues if we are thinking about a practical argument and push aside feelings. Relax so that you pick up on feeling clues.

3. Simple. A leader once told me, “If I can’t explain it, I can’t sell it.” Exactly. A pile of detailed, convoluted data rarely sells the idea. Neither will a barrage of multiple points. Make it easy for them to grasp and remember. What is the one thing you want them to remember, do, or agree to? Is it simple, clear and unambiguous? The reasoning part of the brain (prefrontal cortex) is energy intensive. It is easily derailed by fatigue, distraction or emotion. If you catch the person when they are tired or stressed, their ability to focus on detailed arguments is reduced. Keep it simple; include factual and emotional appeals; state the main point first and throughout. Repetition sticks. Repetition sticks.

4. Unexpected. We tend to be captivated by and remember the unexpected. Brain research shows that the emotion center in the brain (amygdala) is more sensitive to unexpected stimuli whether positive or negative. In a study, diners were divided into three groups. At the end of the meal, one group received a single candy; the second group received two candies; the third group received one candy but the server stopped as though having a change of heart, returned and gave an additional candy. The increased tip amounts (compared to the control group) for each group were 3.3%, 14.1% and a whopping 23% for the last group. The unexpected nice treatment caused a positive emotional reaction.

A friend of mine tried to persuade a company to hire her. She happened to be traveling to Maine after her interview. She mailed them a live lobster with a thank you note, and shortly afterward she got the job. Is there an unexpected twist you can add to your argument – something visual, tactile, or humorous? The unexpected turn will be more persuasive.

5. Confident. Confident and credible people are more persuasive. Walk in straight and tall; look them in the eye; have a firm handshake, and speak with confidence. A truly confident person doesn’t need to be a bully because they exude an air of self-assurance. A confident person is also open to hearing others’ concerns. If you sense concern, acknowledge it. Negative feelings come from a threat response in the brain. The threat response is reduced when the feeling is acknowledged. “I’m picking up that this topic is uncomfortable/not resonating/disagreeable for you. Tell me more about that.” There is no defensiveness but rather a confident interest in understanding fully.

Facts alone rarely lead to persuasion. Improve your persuasive approach by focusing on “you” statements, creating an empathetic connection, keeping the message simple, using an unexpected twist and exuding a quiet, confidence. YES, UC will make a difference. You’ll see.

BiasEveryone has biases. The only thing worse than having a bias is not realizing that you do. It is in the knowing that there is opportunity to manage unintended bias.

Humans are designed to crave relatedness. Millions of years ago your tribe was key to survival. Quickly recognizing those in or out of your tribe had life and death consequences. The wiring to recognize in-groups and out-groups is still in the brain. Neuroscience provides insights into bias, how it impacts behavior; and what can be done to manage it.

When you are with your in-group, your brain responds favorably.

• Others in the group remind you of yourself (the vmPFC – in your brain – activates);
• If a positive event happens to an in-group member, your brain’s reward region activates;
• If a painful event happens to an in-group member, your brain’s pain region is activated.

In a study with happy couples, one person watched as their partner received a mild shock. The brain of the watching partner activated to a similar degree as the shocked partner.

In short, your brain is wired to empathize with in-group members.

The opposite happens for out-group members. If a painful or positive event happens to an out-group member, your brain is not activated. The brain is not wired to empathize with the out-group. This in-group/out-group activation happens seamlessly and with minimal effort.

The implications at work are far-reaching as in-groups and out-groups form easily. Consider:

• Companies with offices in separate locations where employees rarely relate in person;
• Companies in a merger particularly if they were former competitors (definitely an out-group); or
• Technical staff attempting to persuade politicians through logic alone with no relationship.

Of course, there are the in and out groups that form around ethnicity, gender, age and status (employee/manager).

For example, consider technical fields where women are a minority (an out-group). From the research, we see that men naturally and unconsciously relate more easily to other men. General similarities in background, expectations and interests reinforce the in-group wiring. If a member of the male in-group receives an award or gets a promotion, it activates reward circuits in other in-group members. Not so if an out-group member (a woman in this example) receives an award or promotion.

Researchers for Harvard Business School’s Gender Initiative note that, more men than women tend to be managers in technical fields, and more men than women tend to be promoted into management. They found when a female employee clocks out before the work-culturally acceptable time, her colleagues are more likely to think: “She’s probably off to pick up her kids.” If a male employee checks out early, they may think: “He’s off to meet clients.*” Due to brain wiring, men are less likely to empathize with the women. Further, men (and women) naturally incline to hire/promote/want to work with in-group members.

What can be done? Are we doomed to be a slave to the brain’s inclinations? No. Here are four ways to counteract unintended bias.

1. Common interests. Find similar interests such as a home state, common university, kids of the same age, or a sports team. If you make the effort, you will find a foundation for a connection.

2. Shared goals and projects. The brain responds well to a common goal and the rewards that come with achieving it. I worked on transportation projects in Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics. That common goal forged a highly connected team that endures to this day.

3. Fun and laughs. Throw an office party (and don’t talk about work). See a funny movie together. Work on a common volunteer effort. Giving back to the community activates the reward center and creates a shared feel-good experience.

4. Gratitude. Research shows that expressing gratitude engenders relatedness for both the giver and receiver. It doesn’t get any easier than that.

It is easy to relate to in-group members but relatedness can also happen with out-group members. It just takes energy and effort. Individual and organizational success makes it worth the effort. Plus, it’s more fun.

*Paquette, Danielle, Mothers likelier to be judged at work, Washington Post, June 11, 2015.

Stay calmIt’s going to be a tough meeting. The topic is controversial and you feel strongly about the outcome.  Plus, there’s a person in the meeting who routinely unnerves you. It’s the kind of situation that could easily cause you to over-react and not behave at your best.  If you let the situation get the best of you, you are unlikely to achieve the outcome that you wish. What steps can you take to resource yourself to remain calm and in control of your emotions?

Recognize the Situation in Advance.  To manage yourself in situations that are challenging, it helps to know in advance when you will be in that situation.  It’s not that hard to do as triggering events are repeatable.  Think about it. Who regularly gets on your nerves at work? What situations annoy you every time? Maybe it’s when people show up unprepared despite your efforts to provide materials in advance. Or those people who just don’t care and you do. The more you can identify the types of situations and the people that knock you off center the more likely you can prepare in advance.

Make a Plan. Before the meeting, take a break to clear your thinking and make a plan.

Understand your Communication Style. What is your natural communication style: direct, engaging, hands-off? Consider the people in the meeting. How do they typically communicate and will they react constructively to your style? How will you adapt your approach to enable them to be at their best?

Prime Yourself. Priming is a technique where you feed your brain positive information so that it is in that mindset. Because of the mind/body connection, priming the brain results in subtle but powerful shifts in behavior. For example, before the big meeting you choose the story to tell your brain. “I dread this meeting. Brian is always so difficult in meetings and I’m concerned that the meeting won’t go the way I want.”  Or, “This will be a good meeting. I’m capable of managing my reactions and I’ll exhibit calm strength if others over-react. And, we’ll accomplish our objectives.” Priming with the second option is much more likely to yield the outcome you wish.

Use If/Then Planning. Consider examples of how the meeting could unfold and the actions you’ll take to manage any problems.  Examples could be: If Brian starts interrupting everyone and dominating the meeting, then I will calmly ask that he allow others to offer their ideas. If Brian takes the meeting off-track, then I will restate the objective and re-focus the discussion. If the discussion begins to go in a direction with which I don’t agree, then I will make an effort to be open to new ideas and objectively consider the best option.

Work the plan. You’ve primed yourself with positive information and you have a plan. Now, pay attention to yourself and others to stick with your plan. Notice your level of agitation. Is Brian getting to you? If so, notice your tension and consciously think about slowing your breathing; relax your jaw. These simple techniques help to rebalance the nervous system.  Also, attend to the level of agitation in others. Intervene if you notice someone getting anxious. Listen to and validate their comment and redirect the discussion so that the agitated person has a chance to settle their nervous system. Summarize the discussion frequently to make progress.

With a little preparation, you can transform a damaging situation into a productive one and you remain calm instead of becoming testy. Testy helps no one; calm helps everyone.

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

brain wiring

You’re wired to see what you already believe. It’s a simple statement but the implications for decision-making are complex. What you already believe is built layer upon layer from your experiences which create a filter through which you see the world. Good decision-making relies on understanding how your brain’s filter colors perception and influences interpretation.

The brain is designed to be efficient and make good use of its energy.  The most energy efficient approach is for the brain to take in information around you and make it fit into your personal filter system. It may not be 100% correct, but it is efficient.  Take for example what happened to me last Christmas.

First, a word about my filter. My dad was a band director in the local high school in our small Texas town which was not a hot-bed of culture.  In our household, talk was not of cattle and farm equipment but of music.  I was the only 4th grader in town who could pick out an oboe by sight or sound.  Now fast-forward to last Christmas. I was driving past our local Salvation Army building.  Think about the Salvation Army particularly around the holidays. On this cold morning, there was a sign outside their local headquarters that read, “Bell ringers needed.”

“Wow.” I thought. “I didn’t know the Salvation Army had a bell choir! That sounds like fun.  I wonder when they meet?” I was a mile down the road before my brain began to register, “….Wait a minute. Bell ringers? Salvation Army? Oh….not a bell choir.”   My brain was wired to see what it already believed.

Now take that characteristic of the brain into decision-making.   Your brain is designed to create meaning from what it experiences based on your history. For example, if you interview someone who grew up in an environment similar to yours, your brain will naturally endow them with attributes from your experience which may not reflect their reality. You may also interview someone from a different background or culture. Your brain naturally doesn’t connect with them as easily. It may feel more effortful.

As a leader who makes tough decisions, you must be aware of and vigilant to this natural tendency. If not, you will only hire people you relate to, you can underestimate key trends that your brain doesn’t register, and you may ignore input from staff you if you don’t relate to them.

So how do you counteract your brain’s predisposition to see what you already believe.

  1. Seek out information from those with differing backgrounds. A male leader I interviewed said that he purposefully seeks input from women leaders because they “connect the dots better than men. They see things relationally where I don’t.” He forces his brain to see a situation differently. You can gather input across gender, race, and cultural differences as ways to broaden perspective. Also, talk with those who come from a different career path or different industry. This opens up new habits of thinking.
  2. Challenge your assumptions. Your brain is constantly making assumptions in order to be efficient. Get into the practice of noticing and challenging your assumptions.  This is good practice for your staff, too. Calling out assumptions forces them and you to think more deeply about the connections the brain is making about a situation. How can you make the phrase, “challenge the assumption,” a standard part of discussion?
  3. Force consideration of a different solution. When making a decision, ask yourself what would you do if your preferred approach was not available?  The preferred approach is likely aligned with your brain’s history. Take that option off the table for the sake of discussion and exploration.  Once again, you force the brain to look beyond its own filters for options that it discarded because they don’t fit the pattern.

Your brain is designed to quickly and easily match patterns and create meaning. That serves you well in many cases. In fact, we couldn’t function if we had to reevaluate every situation during the day.  However, leaders and managers need to be aware that their brain is wired to see what it already believes.  For key decisions, take the extra time, use the additional energy and force the brain to look beyond its historical boundaries. Decision-making will improve, and your brain will be broadened for the next time.


The brain has two important electrical circuits for motivation. One activates feelings of reward and the other, feelings of threat. Whether staff, teams or clients, the reward circuit is the more reliable, long-term motivator of behavior. Unfortunately, the threat circuitry (via the amygdala) is more easily activated. The good news is that you can, with practice, consciously activate the reward circuit (via the ventral striatum). Here are five switches —the five Cs —that you can flip to activate the brain’s reward circuitry.

Control versus lost control. The brain likes to feel in control, so give others a sense of control to activate reward circuitry.  It doesn’t have to be full control. Let’s say your team resists a new process. To overcome resistance, activate reward feelings.  What part of the process can you relinquish control?  Can the team design the implementation plan, or evaluation methods? For a client who is unconvinced of the merits of a project, how can you engage their sense of control?  Can they set a trial period, the parameters for moving forward, the parameters to pull the plug?  What are creative ways to give over real, partial or perceived control?

Certainty versus uncertainty. The brain wants the world to be as it expects. If the brain is certain of the future, it feels comfortable. Uncertainty triggers alarms.

Situations that create a sense of uncertainty include: lack of transparency, no information shared from management, no performance feedback, leadership instability, ad hoc policies. How can you create certainty? For example, for those in government changing administrations create uncertainty. Will the new leadership be easy to work with; will they be supportive? Even without the answers you provide certainty by saying, “You may be concerned about the in-coming administration.  I don’t know them but here’s what I do know. We do good work and we will prepare information to clearly and concisely explain our work.”

Find ways to enhance feelings of certainty: Establish a clear timeline for a project; provide feedback to staff; be transparent; articulate a clear vision; or implement repeatable processes.

Connection versus disconnection. The brain craves connection to others.  In fact, research shows that we demonstrate more empathy, trust and cooperation with those to whom we feel connected. You naturally want to connect with those like you. But, there are in-groups and out-groups. Race and gender are simple examples, but it goes further.  Do you have multiple offices? Has your company merged? You may notice reluctant collaboration across locations or companies.

Thankfully, the brain accepts new connections.  Teams create connection by setting common goals, naming the team, establishing performance norms, and conducting team activities. For individual connection, seek out commonalities.  The gruffest colleague may soften when connecting about kids, sports or a shared hobby.

Clout versus lost clout. The brain really likes it feeling important, and it’s not just about raises or promotions. Think about circumstances that make you feel important: the really-big boss calls you by name; your input is requested; you are invited to lunch with the inner-circle; the client tells your boss about your good work.  In any of these, your brain does a happy dance. For your top performers, send a hand-written thank you note, go for coffee together, give a shout-out in a meeting, offer a career-development conversation.  Giving attention feels like clout. For clients, call them for input on a key decision; be explicit about the positive influence they had on the work. Remember, sincerity is key.

Consistency versus inconsistency. staff or clients, we are sensitive to being fairness and consistency.  You don’t want a client thinking, “They didn’t do that for me!” Morale is damaged when staff mutter, “She’s playing favorites again. John gets to do anything he wants!” The threat circuit is on fire and productivity plummets. People notice inconsistency. Policies and procedures are important to ensure fair treatment. A clear, replicable rationale for unique applications is key.  If you deviate from the policy, share your thought process so others understand. Take steps to ensure you are fair and consistent.

Keep the 5 Cs in view to remind you to activate the brain’s reward circuit. You will be rewarded with higher productivity and collaboration, and that’s something to be motivated about.

Holiday shopper

He died on September 1. I have not yet tackled his closet, clothes, shoes, sweaters and ties. But, living in the house, I run into what I call the “stuff of life.” It’s the stuff we collect, save and hang on to whether it makes sense or not. There are hearing aid batteries, belts, shoe horn, a bag from a conference that must have a good use, small soaps taken from a hotel. Then there are sweaters and ties from past Christmases; coffee mugs with funny sayings that were stocking stuffers; or the kitchen gadget that we never figured out what it was for. All this stuff swirls around a life until the life is gone. One day, like me, you must sort through it all. Instead of buying more of it, here are three ideas for gifts that will mean more and save time. You can use them at home or at work.

1. Handwritten note. In our house, there are two drawers filled with cards and letters from his daughter. He kept them all. But more importantly, his heart was filled with the love written into each beautifully worded note from his daughter, from me, family or friends. A simple note, thoughtfully crafted from the heart, is worth ten shirts. It couldn’t be easier. At work, write a note to express what you noticed about that person’s skill, dedication or work ethic. Tell them they are appreciated. At home, just write what’s in your heart.

2. An experience. Now, with him gone, I don’t think about the stuff. I remember his laugh at an off-color movie, or his joy at attending his first ballet (Swan Lake in Amsterdam), the stories from our drive through the Shenandoahs (we hit a bear – don’t worry, it didn’t seem to hurt us or the bear). Instead of a sweater, try doing on an experience together. The memory of the experience will last longer than the video game. At work, take staff to lunch or to a compelling movie and discuss it afterwards. At home, find an experiential event like wine tasting, a musical, baking holiday gifts together or decorating a gingerbread house. It’s a gift that will last.

3. A Visit. In our increasingly virtual world, we lose touch with the value of face-time (not FaceTime). There is still no substitute for a human connection. At work, get up from your desk and walk around. Stop into offices and cubicles to say hello and express gratitude – in person. And at home, call a friend and stop by for a holiday visit, coffee, lunch or glass of wine. The time together far surpasses that lotion and bath set.

My suggestion is that you stop a moment before logging on to Amazon for more shopping and take inventory of the people around you. What can you do that’s a bit more meaningful – a note, a short visit or an experience together? That’s what will bring a smile and be memorable long after the box of chocolates are gone.