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

Your Search for calm

It was a perfect, sunny day on Aberdeen Creek just off the Chesapeake Bay.  There, in front of me, floating placidly, was a stand-up paddleboard. This was my first experience with a stand-up paddleboard. It looked unassuming but I was suspicious.  How do I approach the paddleboard? Can I really stand, paddle and propel myself across the water on this…board? The answer was yes. While it generally went well, in hindsight, the approach to the paddleboard was the same approach as tackling a new project, new office or new staff.

  1. Find stability first.
  2. Test it out.
  3. Fall off, laugh, get back on, try again.

Find stability first. Hmmm. How do I step onto this floating board without tumping (that’s a Texas term) myself into the Creek? I looked across and saw kids on junior boards and thought if they can do it surely I can, cautiously, I put both feet onto the board, spread them wide for a stable base, pushed off from the boat and just stood there. How did it feel? What stability did I notice? How precarious was I? For a few moments, just stand and observe.

It’s the same at the start of a new project.  You need to find your base at the start.  Do you understand the lay of the land? Have you met the key players and staff? Have you surveyed your environment? Do you understand the basics of the task? It’s only after you have a solid appreciation of the people, the situation and the work that you are ready to move forward.  First, create stability through understanding.

Test it out. After finding stability, I cautiously experimented with paddling. How do I go forward; how do I turn; how do I account for the wind; how do I get more speed? I tried this and that while gauging my progress down and around the creek.

Once you are oriented with your new project, then you start testing.  What approaches result in the most motivated staff? How do you build support with stakeholders? When you encounter resistance like the wind, what is the most effective way to manage that resistance? Over time, build a repertoire of techniques to use in heavy wind, light wind, and waves that hit you broadside. Also develop techniques to speed you forward when the waters are calm.  It takes practice, experimenting, and observation of the dos and don’ts that work in each situation.

Fall off, laugh, get back on and try again. It was going well. I felt stable; was making good progress; and was gaining confidence. That’s when I needed to turn. I tried a new technique (back paddling) and back paddled my way off the back of the board into the Creek. That gave me the opportunity to learn the skill of climbing back on board, regaining stability, standing and paddling again.

It is inevitable that some techniques and approaches that you try will not work.  The staff won’t respond well; the stakeholders revolt; progress goes backwards instead of forwards. That’s when you have a choice. I could have concluded that stand-up paddleboarding isn’t for me or I could try again.  You have the same choice.  Instead of reaching for the towel, you can say, “Well, THAT didn’t go well!  What could I have done differently? What have I learned?” Then you regain your bearings and chart a new course for the work. And it’s even better if you laugh at your mistake. After all, we all fall in the creek sometime.

Photo credit: epicstockmedia / 123RF Stock Photo

tea kettleThere it is – a tea kettle. Shiny and copper.  It sits quietly until the heat is on. Suddenly, unexpectedly, it erupts, “Eeeeeeeeee!”

There you are. Sitting quietly at home or at work doing what you’re doing.  Something happens – a cross word, a sideways glance, an awkward situation – and you erupt. It may not be a loud “Eeeeeee” (Or maybe it is. I won’t judge.), but you over-react and your reaction doesn’t serve you or the situation. What can you learn from the tea kettle that will reframe an over-reaction to a considered response?  Three things:

The Fire – Your Triggers

The tea kettle is quiet and calm until an external event –in this case, a fire – adds energy to its system.  That energy ignites changes inside the tea kettle.  Similarly, you exist calmly in your world as a manager, leader, mom or employee until an external stimulus trips your trigger, or punches your hot buttons. Like the tea kettle, that event adds energy to your system and starts reactions inside your nervous system.  To prevent an over-reaction you must know what lights your fire and trips your triggers.  To identify triggers, start with identifying situations where you over-react.  For most people, an over-reaction causes a fight, flight, freeze or appease response. A fight reaction incites you to confront; flight draws you inside and away; freeze stops you in your tracks; and appease, well, don’t we all just want to get along? Whatever your reaction, it is out of scale for the situation. Someone makes a glancing comment; you hear it as a jab; triggering you to withdraw from the discussion. Someone explains the rationale behind a decision; you hear a threat to your values; and you verbally lash out. Whatever it is – a situation, a comment, or a person – it pays to recognize your triggers. Think back to times when you over-reacted.  What happened? What started the fire under your tea kettle?

The Water – Your Sensations

As the fire adds energy to the tea kettle, changes begin to happen. The tea kettle grows warm, the water inside agitates and rumbles. Both are indicators that something is happening inside that precedes the eruption.  You, too, have indicators, sensations in your body, that are early warning signs that a triggered reaction is on its way. The trigger ignites your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) sending alarms through your body.  Your body reacts first; your brain, well, it’s the last to know. With attentive awareness, you can learn to recognize the signs that your nervous system, like the water in the tea kettle, is registering an upset.  Perhaps you get a knot in your stomach, or your breathing becomes shallow, or your jaw clenches, or palms sweat.  We have this language:  Hot under the collar, steam coming out the ears, chills running up your spine, blood boiling. The skill is to recognize these initial the bodily sensations. When you consider your over-reactions, see if you can recall your feelings in that moment.  What sensations occurred first and where did they surface – gut, hands, chest? The next time you are hit with a triggering event, notice the sensation. If you can, you have a chance to intercept the over-reaction before it happens.

The Whistle – Your Response

Left on the heat, the tea kettle sends out its piercing “eeeeeee”.  Without intervention, you erupt with an over-reaction that doesn’t help you or anyone else. How do you give yourself other options that are more considered?

To stop the tea kettle’s whistle remove it from the heat or turn the heat down. You have the same two options. In some cases you may be able to remove yourself from the situation. Can you stop the meeting and reconvene tomorrow? Or take a break for a few minutes? Any type of complete break will take you off the heat while your nervous system calms and your brain catches up to the action.  If the situation doesn’t allow you to stop, there are techniques that turn down the heat and activate the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and repose).

  • Relax your jaw and the area around your eyes;
  • Deeply and slowly exhale;
  • Breathe consciously from your belly;
  • Count to ten…slowly;
  • Scan your body and consciously relax tense areas;
  • Ground yourself to the floor, sit up straight and imagine tension draining away.

Each of these techniques can be used without calling attention to yourself.  They help to calm the disruption in your body and gives you a gap in which to bring your awareness to the situation.  In that slight gap, you recognize the trigger, notice the over-reaction building, and realize that you have the opportunity to choose a different response.  Now, reframe the over-reaction into a considered response.

It takes practice, but don’t worry, there are plenty of opportunities for practice! Learn the three tips from a tea kettle: know your triggers, watch for body sensations and manage your responses.  It’s your choice.


We talk about creating consensus all the time.  What we do, however, is have a meeting and hope to reach agreement without appreciating what “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.


“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.

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.

checklistPilots use it; some doctors use it. The benefits of its use have been documented. What is it? A simple checklist. Are you taking advantage of it?

My sister and her husband are pilots. Each time I fly with them they pull out their pre-flight checklist. Even with hours of experience, they use a checklist. They even do things like take a look at this post and others to get more advice and tips on what to do before they travel. But, why would experienced pilots who have initiated flights hundreds of times, still use a checklist? They know that for complicated activities, the brain needs support be to accurate. Look at these research results.

In a study of surgeons in 2009, the use of a checklist, which covered steps before and after the surgery, was shown to cut patient mortality rates nearly in half and complications from surgery fell by a third. A similar study of an intensive-care checklist used in several hospitals in Michigan and reported in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2003, showed a 66% reduction in infections and $175 million saved in the treatment of those infections.[i]

You’re thinking, “That’s great but I’m not doing surgery at work or flying a plane. I don’t need this.” In my work with organizations, the most complex challenge they face is behavior change particularly in a team environment. Whether it’s not interrupting each other, listening to everyone’s input, collaborating with the out-spoken team member who gets on your nerves or just sending in progress reports on time, these behaviors tank the productivity of a team. And behaviors are hard to change. A meeting checklist can help.

The checklist helps the brain in three ways.

  • Working memory. Research in neuroscience shows that working memory (the part of memory that stores readily accessible information) only holds about four pieces of information at a time. That’s not much. Checklists put important information back into working memory.
  • Rewiring. The brain resists new behavior. It’s takes less mental energy to do what it has always done. It will change behavior but only with a lot of practice and intention. Checklists reminder the brain to practice.
  • Priming. The brain and body respond to what they experience most recently. Where people prime their brain with confident and powerful thoughts before going into a meeting, studies show they are 60% more likely to be viewed as a leader. Checklists are a brain priming tool.

As an example, here’s how I use a checklist to help companies be more productive in meetings.

Identify ideal behaviors. How do you wish the team would behave to support collaboration and productivity? Here’s an example checklist that I used with a client:

  • Have a written agenda.
  • Start and end on time.
  • Stay focused on the objective of the meeting. Take divergent topics off-line.
  • Let each person complete their thought without interruption.
  • Everyone uses a calm tone of voice throughout the meeting.

(Note that each item is stated in a positive sentence – the way we want it to be not the behavior to avoid.) For this organization, these behaviors represent a desirable state that is a departure from the norm.

Use a checklist. These ideal behaviors were written in the form of a checklist. Team leads committed to briefly reviewing the checklist with the team as the meeting starts. In less than a minute, the team members have desirable behavior goals re-installed in working memory, they are reminded to practice which rewires their brain, and it primes them for a more productive meeting. All in less than a minute.

You can use this same approach for personal goals, New Year’s resolutions, or just setting the stage for a productive and happy day. Use it anywhere your brain needs a boost to remember what you want it to do. It couldn’t be easier.

[i] Study: A Simple Surgery Checklist Saves Lives, Szalavitz, Maia, Time, January 14, 2009.


Where are the keys? They must be here somewhere. I drove to Starbucks between a meeting and my flight home. Clearly, I had the keys when I arrived. The Starbucks staff helped me search. No keys. “Maybe you left them in the car?” they offered. Maybe. It’s worth checking. That’s when I discovered there was no car. Stolen. With my luggage in the back. I realize I’m not the only one who’s had a car stolen before, but at that moment in time, it sure felt like it. I wished I’d seen this article on preventing theft before the car was taken; too late for me now, but it’s good for future reference and for me to help any readers out there who need it!

And so, it began…a journey that illustrates, once again, that kindness matters.

Starbucks manager. After searching the store, she watched the realization unfold that the car was stolen. She called the police and brought me a huge cup of “tranquility” tea and a glass of water. So kind.

TMobile staff. My phone cord was in the car. After a flurry of texts, emails and phone calls, the battery was dying. TMobile was next door, but there was a LONG line of customers waiting. I explained the situation to the staff. I needed that cord and I needed to stay at Starbucks to wait for the police. They added me to the list and sent me back to Starbucks. A bit later, they showed up at Starbucks with their mobile terminal to complete the sale. Nice.

Phoenix police. Admittedly, I waited for some time for my stolen vehicle to rise to the top of their priorities. When the officer arrived, he was calm, soft-spoken and patient. He asked questions, filled out reports and explained the process. He was sorry that he couldn’t take me to the rental agency. His kindness helped.

Uber driver. He searched and searched to find a pharmacy from which I could buy a tooth brush, tooth paste and comb. Over and over he said, “I’m so sorry this happened to you.” Sweet.

Enterprise manager. As it turns out, this was not the first time a rental car was stolen, but it was the first time for me. The manager calmly took down the information. He wasn’t upset or worried; just helpful. After more reports and more explanations, he brought me another car. He trusted me to not lose it this time.

I don’t have my luggage back and insurance paperwork looms, but I’m struck by how much kindness helped me navigate a difficult situation. I’m reminded of when a friend got car insurance by choosing to consider more here in terms of options, and they had a similar experience.

You have this opportunity every day. How can you show kindness to those you work with? Maybe you can pick up their copies off the copy machine and drop them by their desk; make a new pot of coffee when the last cup is gone; notice when someone seems down and offer concern; complement a job well done.

All these examples are small things. They take little energy and less time. And they make a big difference for those on the receiving end. Bonus: you feel good, too. It’s a win-win. Try it. Find three opportunities to offer kindness to someone today. Because, kindness matters.

New Year's Resolutions



Each year we make them and break them in short order. Why continue to do the same thing over and over? Your New Year’s resolution doesn’t have to be hard or frustrating. This year, make your resolutions meaningful, achievable and impactful. How? Try this…

  1. Identify one thing that would feel good and would make a difference.
  2. Write it down and keep it in plain view.
  3. Track your progress each week.

Let’s look at each step.

1. What is one thing that, if accomplished, would feel good to you? I use the word “feel” intentionally. All too often, we focus on the activities that we think we should. What you think is less motivating than how you feel. What would feel good to you? Saving for a great vacation, taking a class in your favorite hobby, spending more time with charity work, improving your fitness level, working on the project that you care about? Pick one.

For me, I resolve to reinvigorate my meditation practice. In the past, I meditated regularly and found it to be calming and provide regular insights into my work and life, but I allowed work to take over. I feel that a regular mediation practice would be a positive addition to my life and work.

2. Next, write it down. There is power that comes from conceiving a new resolution. There is even greater power that comes from writing it down– by hand. Creating the written goal, I find, activates a creative process of crafting the idea. Be specific so that you know when you achieve the goal. Further, I suggest that you place it in multiple places where you will bump into it. The constant reminder is key.

Here’s what I wrote on several sticky notes. “I am meditating five times per week for 10 minutes plus once on the weekend for 20 minutes.” I will place one sticky note on the computer screen in my office; one on the nightstand next to my bed; and one on the kitchen counter where all the stuff in the house accumulates. I also have an app on my phone that contains my to-do list so that I must check it off or cancel it every day.

3. Now you need accountability. How can you track your progress on a regular basis? If your resolution is monetary, what can you measure (amount saved each week, perhaps)? If you have a fitness goal, what specifically can you track (number of steps, days at the gym)? And do you need to kit yourself out with things like workout hoodies for it, so it can feel easier to start? If you want to spend more time on the big project, school, community or with your family, what can you quantify (number of hours allocated)? Once you identify the accountability metric, define how to track it. You might use a calendar to note the weekly progress; record it in your phone; add it to the sticky note. You need to see the progress or lack of progress.

For example, I have a large calendar in my office to track speaking and consulting events. I make a tick mark each day when I meditate and add them at the end of the week. I get a mental pat-on-the-back each time I achieve my resolution.

Your New Year’s resolution is not just a resolution – you are rewiring your brain to create a new habit. It takes repetition. The resolution gets you started and the habit keeps you going. Let’s all get started with a New Year that feels right!

elephantThe workplace is filled with awkward situations that are hard to discuss.  Perhaps there’s been an unpleasant exchange between co-workers and there’s a lingering undertone of anger.  Maybe someone didn’t get the expected promotion and remain disappointed.  Perhaps market conditions mean that bonuses were cut out this year. Maybe it’s best to not say anything? Maybe it will create an upset if we mention a touchy subject? Maybe it’s best to pretend like there’s nothing wrong? We are tempted to brush a big upset under the rug except that it doesn’t fit under the rug. It is an elephant, and elephants don’t hide well. Plus, ignoring the elephant creates threat in the brain.

Research indicates that suppressing an upsetting emotion further activates the threat response.  Acknowledging the upset settles the brain. Consequently, it’s better to bring the elephant into the room and use one of these techniques to escort it out.

I’ve had first-hand experience with this lately at a personal level.  My husband died several weeks ago. This large elephant follows along behind me. I’m out and about in the work world now and notice varying ways that people address my personal elephant – some effective, others not. My observations are relevant to the workplace elephants, too.

Talk about the elephant first. You walk into round-two of a meeting where round-one ended in an upset.  Do you ignore it and move on? No – it’s best to address the elephant early. You say, “I know our last meeting ended badly and emotions were high. Let’s start today by reiterating the common ground and summarizing our differences so that we can address them constructively.” You recognize the elephant and calmly provide a way to address it and move on.  For my elephant, this is the person who doesn’t shy away from the topic of my husband’s death. They bring it up immediately. Honestly, approach is a relief because we address the obvious and move on.

Acknowledge the elephant and set it aside for later. You have an employee who expected the big promotion but wasn’t selected. Her disappointment is palpable.  Still, you need to talk about her ongoing work status.  You say, “I expect that you feel some disappointment about the promotion. I’d like to set up a time to talk more about your thoughts and feelings so that we can move forward in a way that is good for you and the company.  In the meantime, I’d like to continue our work on xyz project.” In this case, you explicitly address the elephant and provide a forum to address it. In my case, this is the person who immediately acknowledges my loss and asks to hear more after the meeting.

Ask if talking about the elephant would be helpful. You heard about two employees who had an angry disagreement again and you run into one of them shortly afterward.  You say, “I heard you and Joe had a disagreement. Would it be helpful to talk about it? I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay when it isn’t.” This option doesn’t ignore the problem and gives the choice to the impacted person.  For me, this is like someone asking if I would like to talk about my husband.

The common theme is: Address the elephant; don’t ignore it. Pretending that all is okay when it isn’t only makes the situation worse.

For me, I miss my husband terribly and I’m adjusting slowly.  Thanks for asking.