3 Minutes to More Effective Leadership

3 minutesIf you could improve your leadership in just three minutes a day, would you make the time to do it? What if this magic 3 minutes consisted of doing... pretty much nothing at all? Sound too good to be true? In leadership, our ability to connect with people and align them towards common goals is a function, in large part, of our leadership presence.

Presence is how we show up. It's the quality of our be-ing (as opposed to the content of our "do-ing"). In any given moment, our presence may be grounded and focused -- or checked-out and scattered.

When the quality of our presence is high, we are more inspiring to others, more connected to ourselves and more effective in our leadership.

But back to those 3 minutes. It is impossible to cultivate presence if we never pause -- if we're always rushing from meeting to meeting, tied to our smart phones, and feeling forever behind.

The simple act of sitting in silence with our breath, when practiced over time, can radically shift our presence -- even if we do it for only 3 minutes a day. The act of sitting is simple (but not always easy):

  • Find a seat on the floor or in a chair where you can sit comfortably but remain upright and alert.
  • Close your eyes and start to notice your body, in particular the places where it connects with the floor and/or the chair.
  • Tune into your breath, following each inhale and exhale.
  • Whenever your mind wanders, gently direct your attention back to your breath. (This will happen many times. Returning your attention to your breath is what you are practicing here, over and over.)
  • Continue this for 3 minutes or more (you may want to set a timer before you start).
  • When time is up, slowly open your eyes, start to move your body, and return to your surroundings.

Immediately after sitting you may find that you feel calmer, more grounded, and less frazzled. Over time, your attention, patience, and ability to empathize may significantly shift for the better. (I know I've seen these effects, and science agrees.)

If you could make time to sit like this daily, how would it impact your leadership presence? Give it a try, and let me know.

From the Vault: Pondering Purpose in the (Jewish) New Year


For those who celebrate Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, now is a time of reflection, of returning to that which we value most, and of reconciling our best intentions with our actions. 

In the spirit of the holiday, I offer this post from the vault: Pondering Purpose in the New Year.  Whether or not you are celebrating the birth of a new year this week, I invite you to take a moment to step back and reflect with this exercise.  

How can you call upon your purpose to do your best work in the year to come?


Today I've been revisiting some of my favorite perspectives on the concept of purpose.  I am particularly moved by these words by choreographer Martha Graham:

[quote] There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action.  And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.  If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.  The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares to other expressions.  It is simply your business to keep the channel open.[/quote]

Reflecting upon these words, what resonates?

  • What is the unique energy or action you will contribute to the world?
  • How can you more fully express it in the year to come?
  • How have you blocked its expression in the past?
  • How will you remove these blocks this year?
  • What's the possibility you create when you "keep the channel open"?

Happy New Year.

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The One Planning (and Focusing and Decision-Making) Tool I Couldn't Live Without

  Three years ago at the Selah Leadership Program, I was introduced to a planning tool that I've used every single day since.  This magic tool?  POP.

The POP Model was developed by organizational consultants Leslie Sholl Jaffe and Randall J. Alford.  POP stands for Purpose, Outcomes, and Process, and it's a simple and effective tool for keeping yourself and others focused aligned in almost any context.

Purpose answers the question, why is this important?  

Outcomes answers the question, what do we most need to accomplish?

and Process answers the question, how will we accomplish the outcomes?

It is easy to see why these three little questions have so much resonance.

  • Purpose fuzzy?  You are likely to find yourself spinning your wheels, lost and not sure how you got where you are.
  • Outcomes unclear?  Team members may be working toward different goals, reducing the group's overall impact.
  • Process ignored?  You'll find yourself in the middle of a dead-end meeting, wondering why there is so much talk and so little progress toward what you really need to be getting done.

POP In Action

To use the model, articulate the Purpose of what you are taking on, your desired Outcomes, and the Process for how you will get to the outcomes.  In some contexts it is beneficial to use POP on your own, and in others it can be a powerful tool for aligning a group.  POP can be the basis for a 5-minute back-of-the-envelope exercise, or an all-day, organization-wide planning endeavor.

Say you have an upcoming meeting with your staff to plan your big 2012 fundraising event.  Before the meeting, you might sit down and take 5-10 minutes to sketch out a POP for yourself:

  • Purpose: The purpose of this meeting is to kick-off planning for the 2012 fundraising event.
  • Outcomes: We need to leave this meeting with:
    • Clarity around who will spearhead each major piece of work.
    • A decision on if we will hire a marketing consultant or handle that in-house.
    • An understanding on the part of the Development team of the Board's expectations for how much $$$ this event will bring in.
  • Process:  In order to get to these outcomes:
    • I need to think about who I believe should take on each major piece of work, before the meeting.
    • I should look at that research we did two years ago about marketing consultants so I can go into the day with a ballpark figure of how much it would cost to outsource.
    • I sh0uld also have a conversation with my Development Director to make sure he understands the Board's target for this event -- that way he can help me get his team on board during the meeting.
    • Finally, I need to design an agenda for this meeting that will produce the outcomes I want -- so that we don't get lost in the weeds.

POP is a powerful tool to use in meetings. The meeting facilitator can either lead the group in collaboratively defining the meeting's Purpose, Outcomes and Process in real-time, or can bring a pre-defined POP to a meeting and solicit group-buy in.  A meeting where the whole team knows the POP -- why we are there, what we are trying to get to, and how we will get there -- is a meeting worth everyone's time.

POP can be used at the beginning of projects -- Why are we taking on this project? What do we want to accomplish by doing it? How will we accomplish that?  And, it can be a test of alignment, mid-project, when things seem to be drifting off course -- Why were we doing this project again?  What were we trying to accomplish?  How can we get back on track?

For me, the power of POP is in slowing down and thinking about what I really want to get out of the effort I am putting into a meeting, a project, or a partnership.  In a group context, going through the POP process can reveal hidden assumptions, biases and leaps in logic that would otherwise derail the group down the line.

It is no exaggeration to say that I use POP every single day.  I may have even POP'ed a vacation once or twice!   Try it out, and let me know how you experience the simple power of POP.
Want to learn more about applying POP in your organization?  Learn more about working with me.

5 Questions for Deeper Self Awareness in Sticky Situations

Deep self-knowledge -- an awareness of our own thoughts, feelings, behavior, and motivations -- is one of the cornerstones of thoughtful leadership, yet it is often neglected.  In the rush of everyday work life, with its cascading opportunities and challenges, we can easily forget to keep our "selves" in mind.   Yet, whether you pay conscious attention to your self or not, you are the person driving everything you do. Being aware of what is driving you and how you are showing up to others is especially important in sticky situations -- whether it be a conflict with a coworker, a disagreement with your partner at home, or a misunderstanding with a friend.  We can become so reactive and responsive to the other people we are tangling with that we don't examine what's going on with our own selves.

Here are five questions to increase your self awareness when things get stressful.  To use them, you first need to acknowledge that you are in a sticky situation and decide to step outside of the mess for a minute.  Once you do that, take a deep breath and consider the following:

How is this situation exposing my limitations to  myself or others?

What underlying beliefs or values are influencing my experience of this situation?

What effect am I having on others?

What's going on in my body right now (pulse, breathing, muscle tension, how I'm sitting/standing)?

What is my role in this situation?

(update: see a great 6th question in the comments - and add your own!)

These questions matter, of course, because the only person one can truly change is oneself.  In sticky situations, our focus is often squarely on the other person -- what they are doing, saying, and thinking. By focusing on yourself for even a few minutes, you will be able to reapproach the situation with greater clarity, calm and insight.  Give it a try.

What questions do you ask yourself when you are in a sticky situation?

Pondering Purpose in the New Year

Today I've been revisiting some of my favorite perspectives on the concept of purpose.  I am particularly moved by these words by choreographer Martha Graham:

“There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action.  And because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.  If you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost.  The world will not have it.  It is not your business to determine how good it is, nor how it compares to other expressions.  It is simply your business to keep the channel open.”

And some questions to ponder-

  • What is the unique energy or action you will contribute to the world?
  • How can you more fully express it in 2011?
  • How have you blocked its expression in the past?
  • How will you remove these blocks this year?
  • What's the possibility you create when you "keep the channel open"?

Happy New Year.

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Five Provocative Ideas about Leadership & the Brain

I'm reporting live from Boston, where about 250 neuroscientists and leadership experts are gathered for the 5th annual NeuroLeadership Summit.  The crowd is a heady mix of folks who are equal parts charismatic and nerdy, and there is a palpable excitement about this growing field.  Here are five ideas that captured my imagination on the first day of this 3-day gathering. 1.  Group brainstorming can stifle insight (Jonathan Schooler, UCSB) Conventional wisdom says that the best way to generate lots of ideas is to bring a group together and ask them to brainstorm.  Schooler's research shows that group conversation can actually disrupt creative solutions.  Once a team member projects his or her interpretation onto the situation at hand, it is very hard for the others to see outside of the construct their teammate has created.  For maximum creativity, ask people to first solve the problem on their own, and then bring them together to share their individual ideas with the group.

2.  The essence of charisma is mindfulness (Ellen Langer, Harvard) Mindfulness is nothing more than noticing new things as they occur.  Sounds simple, but we spend much of our lives in mindless autopilot, assuming that the situation in front of us (whether it be our commute, our coffee, or our colleague) is the same as every situation that's come before.  This kind of mindless state is not lost on others; it is readily perceived by children, adults, and animals alike.  Mindfulness cannot be faked.  This is why leaders register as charismatic when they are mindful: actively engaged in the present, visibly invested in the uniqueness of the person before them, curious and ready to learn.

3.  Expanding your emotional vocabulary can change how you feel (Lisa Feldman Barrett, Boston College) Changing what you think about what you are feeling can change how you experience emotion. (It's okay, read that sentence again.)  Our feelings don't just happen to us.  In fact, both the emotional and decision-making parts of the brain are involved in how we experience our feelings.  The better we are at to pinpointing and labeling our exact emotions, the better able we'll be to shift our experience of how we are feeling.  For example, rather than settling on "angry" to describe how that encounter with your coworker made you feel, try to figure out if the feeling is really "embarrassed," "inadequate," or even "sleep-deprived."  This will change your experience of the situation that made you "angry" in the first place.

4.  Sometimes the best choice is not to choose at all (Sheena Iyengar, Columbia) We are bombarded with choices everyday.  Iyengar's research shows that the more choices we have (and the less meaningful the distinction between our choices), the worse we are at making a decision that we will be happy with.  Overwhelmed with choices, we end up either not choosing anything, or making a choice we later second-guess.  Sometimes the best thing we can do for ourselves is to opt out of choosing altogether.  It's okay to decide that the time we'd spend deliberating over this widget or that one is ultimately distracting us from our end goal.  (Incidentally, this is why I don't have TV, much less cable -- too many choices.)

5. Why we get bored of our spouses, but not our kids (Ellen Langer again) Situations/jobs/people are neither inherently boring nor inherently interesting.  It's our experience of these things/people that makes them so. Attending to what's different (what's changing) is what makes the world seem engaging.  The more we notice, the more interesting the world is.  A person will complain that she is bored in her relationship with her spouse of 20 years... but the same person would never say that after 20 years of parenthood, she is bored with her kids. This is because we expect our children to change. Our spouses - not so much.

There are many more thoughts from the day captured on my Twitter stream from the conference. Signing off for tonight.

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Peter Block Asks You to Bring Surprise into a World that Wants Control

Last week organizational consulting guru Peter Block spoke at my school.  Block, the author of numerous books (most famously, Flawless Consulting) has over the past decade turned his attention to creating communities "that work for all," most notably in his own community of Cincinnati, OH.  Block describes his work as "bring[ing] change into the world through consent and connectedness rather than through mandate and force." Block is someone who invites his audience to experience what he's preaching in real time- in this case it meant spending 10 minutes in a circle with two strangers ("knees no more than 9 inches apart") asking and answering compelling questions.

I am still absorbing/wrestling with some of the ideas Block put forward that night (particularly as they relate to social justice) but I wanted to share some of my key learnings.

What follows is directly from my notes, so while it is not a transcript, it should be considered a pretty close paraphrase of Block's words as I heard them.  These are the points that most resonated with me.

Organizations are patriarchal. Organizations/institutions are inherently patriarchal.  The essence of patriarchy is this: I know what's best for you.    The belief that The Boss = Cause of any given situation and Subordinate = Effect is a false one.  We give power to people above us because we think they are "cause" and that they set culture.  In reality, we re-produce patriarchy through our participation in it.  There is a collusion between patriarchy and our wish for safety.  Leaders must work with people in a way that makes them feel that they are the creators of their own experiences.

Relatedness is everything. Get obsessive about connecting people.  Our work is to create circles of possibility within the hierarchical structure of institutions.  The circle is the symbol of an alternative culture.  The circle says: we all matter.  Our eyes connect.  All voices are heard.  Group people together with strangers, because hierarchy is supported by like-mindedness.  I cannot be surprised if I am connecting with people I already know.  Bring surprise into a world that wants control.  In the circle, create a world that is an example of the larger world we want to inhabit.

Questions bring us together, answers drive us apart. Create a moratorium on doling out advice or help.  Working on problems isn't powerful - ask questions instead.  Get curious, be interested, pay attention.  Ask questions that have an edge to them.   Ask, "why does that matter?"  Other powerful questions:  "What is the question that is animating your life right now?" "What is the crossroads you're at at this stage of your life?"  "For the thing you're complaining about, what's your role in creating it?"

Slow down and connect with people. Building connections with one another takes time. People will say it takes too much time, that there are more important things to do.  Speed is the argument against love, against relatedness, against democracy.  Doing is a defense against being.

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The Regret Minimization Framework

In this short video, Jeff Bezos explains how he decided to leave his cush, stable financial-sector job to start this wild dream called Amazon.com. Bezos' framework is essentially this question: when I'm 80, will I regret not doing this?  He calls it the Regret Minimization Framework. [youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jwG_qR6XmDQ]

I've used this framework (without knowing Mr. Bezos' fancy name for it) to make a few important personal and professional decisions in my life.  As Bezos suggests, I found it helped me leapfrog over anxieties and uncertainties tied to the here-and-now and take a longer view.

Like the warmer/colder test (which is more about the here-and-now), the Regret Minimization Framework is a quick "gut-check" that can help you find clarity as you approach important decisions.  Of course, not everyone's internet start-up is going to turn into Amazon, but Mr. Bezos says that the important thing for him is that he tried (easy for him to say now, a cynic might add).

You can watch the video here (having problems embedding it on my blog, sorry).

What do you think about a regrets-based framework for making important decisions?

Could You Be Happier If You Tried?

How happy are you?  Could you be happier if you tried?

Is it selfish to want to try?

While on vacation in the happiest country on earth, I read Gretchen Rubin's thoroughly absorbing (and now bestselling) meditation on these questions, The Happiness Project. Armed with research that about about 30-40% of our happiness is actually within our control (50% of happiness is pre-determined by genetics, another 10 - 20% by life circumstance) Rubin takes us along, month-by-month, on her one year quest to maximize her own sense of well-being.

The book is fun to read; it's also a treasure chest of useful tips, ideas, and frameworks for thinking about one's own happiness.  Rubin's articulation of the four stages of happiness - anticipate, savor, express, reflect - resonated as spot-on as I happily splashed about in the Pacific Ocean.  Her experiment with enacting a "week of extreme nice" is particularly amusing, if daunting.  Throughout, as she tries on the advice of philosophers, parenting experts, and self-help gurus (often to comic effect), Rubin's cardinal rule, "Be Gretchen," ensures that she remains grounded in what she knows to be true about herself.

But isn't all this focus on personal happiness kind of... selfish? Rubin addresses this question at length, and points to research that indicates that happier people are more likely to engage with the world and help others.  In Rubin's words,

"One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself."

I would go further and say that personal happiness is key to our ability to make change in the world.  For folks who feel called to create a more happy, sustainable, and balanced world, ignoring your own personal happiness, sustainability, and balance will limit your ability to act as effectively as you could.

Happy, self-aware change leaders create healthier organizations and more thoughtful social change movements. When we fail to pay attention to our own happiness -- an all too common phenomenon in the social justice field -- the results are burnout, frustration, and  organizational dysfunction.

Gretchen Rubin's book is a great reminder that in order to change the world, we must change ourselves first. How many unhappy leaders do you know, and how much more powerfully could they lead if they were leading from a happier place?

Are Organizations Just Apartments Crammed With Junk?

Watching a show about apartments crammed with junk has made me think about the challenges of sustaining organizational change. The show is "Hoarders" on A&E, a reality series that documents people whose compulsive acquisition of stuff has made their houses uninhabitable and their lives chaotic. One recent episode featured Dale, a man at risk of losing his apartment if he doesn't clear out the clutter and bring his living space up to code.  Dale, an avid dumpster diver and collector of art objects, has so packed his apartment with his finds that he has created a fire hazard -- and yet, he can't stop himself from acquiring more stuff.

The climax of the episode comes during a confrontation between the two professionals enlisted to help Dale: Christina the professional organizer and Dr. Moore the clinical psychologist.  Christina is pushing Dale to make decisions about getting rid of his stuff, and to accept responsibility for the way he has neglected the items he says he cares about so deeply.  Dr. Moore is growing increasingly concerned about Dale's mental state and his willingness to continue with the change process as Christina pushes and pushes.

Dr. Moore confronts Christina and basically says, "Your job is to clean out people's apartments, and my job is support people as they change."  Dr. Moore argues emphatically for "balance" between the two goals if Dale is to see any success at all.

The episode ends as Dale enters his newly clean and uncluttered apartment, ecstatic with the possibility of a new life.  We are also left with Dr. Moore's warning that if Dale doesn't get long-term counseling, the clutter will soon return.   It's a scary thought, knowing where Dale has been.

This made me wonder, as leaders initiating organizational change, how much are we just trying to clean out apartments and how much are we supporting organizations to achieve sustainable change?

Theorist Edgar Schein identifies three components of organizational culture: artifacts (the things we see), espoused values (the things we say we believe) and tacit assumptions (the often unexamined beliefs we take for granted).

Like Dale, many of our organizations are existing in spaces crammed with broken "stuff" we feel very attached to:  our lopsided org chart, our outdated diversity policy, or our serpentine process for ordering supplies.  These are the artifacts of our cluttered organizational lives.  Relatively speaking, it is not that hard for a focused leader or change consultant to sweep these away.

After the organization is swept clean, it is also relatively easy to take up a new mantra associated with the changes -- at least for a little while.  As we saw Dale exuberantly embracing his newly clean apartment, many organizations will at first luxuriate in the feeling of spaciousness that follows a change process.  Like Dale, organizations will espouse -- often quite publicly -- the values associated with their new way of being.

Much harder to change are the tacit assumptions that facilitated our need for change in the first place. This is Dr. Moore's plea to Christina: "Don't be so committed to emptying the apartment that you forget the person who created this mess in the first place."  This is where change leaders must ask the tough questions to uncover what the people in an organization really believe.  That is the place from which sustainable organizational change can occur.

The truth is, most organizational change efforts -- and I would guess most de-hoarding interventions -- ultimately fail.  Volumes of organizational literature have been written on why this is so.  The story of Dale presents a powerful metaphor for what we are up against when we seek to change organizations, and why simply cleaning house is not enough.

What Matters Now

Seth Godin asked 70 "big thinkers" from business, social innovation, and technology to answer the question, "What Matters Now?"  Their answers - one page essays on topics like fear, generosity, gumption, sleep, and willpower - are available in a free e-book. You can get the free e-book here.

To Manage Workload, Right-Size Your Goals

A great takeaway from the Selah/Rockwood refresher training I attended yesterday: Workload = Goals / (Timeframe x Resources x Efficiency)

If your workload is unmanageable, the best way to tinker with this equation is to right-size your goals.


  • The timeframe available for our work is often externally mandated.  We have to get the report done by the date of the board meeting, or the RFP is due on a certain date.
  • Resources are something we also often have limited control over.  We only have $100,0oo in our budget, one part-time staffer to help with the event, etc.
  • Efficiency is a place where many of us love to tinker but actual gains are modest.  Our ability to be more productive or efficient certainly helps move work along (and can greatly improve one's mental state), but doesn't really reduce workload if we have taken on too many commitments.

Our goals are where the biggest shifts are possible. How much are we committing ourselves to do?  Do we have three strategic goals for the year or seventeen? If our goals are unrealistically ambitious from the get, it is unlikely we will be able to make sufficient alterations to our timeframe, resources, or efficiency to regulate our workload.

Right-sizing goals can be hard -- especially for us social change folks, who have such big and long-term goals.  But we all know the alternative: burnout, disillusionment, and reduced effectiveness.  To be able to sustain ourselves as change agents over time, we need to make sure we are regulating our workload, and that means being more realistic about the goals we set for ourselves and our organizations.

Your Brain on Feedback

Last month I praised Yahoo CEO Carol Bartz's head-on approach to giving and receiving feedback.  I never said that what she did was easy. A commenter, M., responded to the post by articulating just how hard it has been for him to open himself up to feedback.  M. wrote:

For a long time, it was enough for me just to be able to hear criticism without getting incredibly defensive and shutting it down – actually soliciting feedback where there was a risk it wouldn’t be entirely positive was tantamount to masochism for me.

M. is not alone.  Who among us wants to invite criticism that makes us feel bad?  In fact, there are both psychological and physiological reasons why asking for feedback is so hard. Organizational theorist Chris Argyris says that our aversion to negative feedback is why it is so hard to teach smart people how to learn.  Smart people are accustomed to getting positive feedback for their behavior, and lack practice in dealing with their own failures. As a result, Argyris says, smart people "become defensive, screen out criticism, and put 'blame' on anyone and everyone except themselves.  In short, their ability to learn shuts down precisely at the moment they need it most." Sound familiar? (Argyris quote from this book.)

Meanwhile, a little part of our brains called the amygdala is taking over at the first sign of threatening feedback.  The amygdala is the walnut sized area of the brain that produces that fight/flight/freeze response that makes our palms sweat, our breath quicken, or our feet want to run out the door at the first sign of criticism.  A leadership training I did likened the triggered amygdala to a fire alarm.  Imagine trying to hold a conversation -- and graciously take in feedback -- with an alarm blaring in your ear. Not the best conditions for a thoughtful response, much less learning.

Consciously avoiding feedback, though, can be even worse.  Commenter M. writes,

What I realized was that in the absence of feedback, I was already filling in the blanks with my very worst fears – that I wasn’t doing a good job, that I was a crappy friend, that I was unfit, incompetent, and so on down the line.  If I don’t ask for feedback, I am assuring that the haters in my head will be the only voices I hear.

Oh, those voices in our heads!  Prolific business book guy Seth Godin says those voices are our overactive "lizard brain" speaking up to intervene whenever we get too close to completing something that could garner criticism or ridicule. (The amygdala is the soul of the lizard brain.) If you have ever asked yourself if you should really submit that article, make that speech, or show that painting for fear of negative feedback, that is your lizard brain talking. A life lived at the mercy of the lizard brain is a life of self sabotage and never-ending self doubt.

So how do we overcome our aversion to learning from failure, our hyper-sensitive amygdalas, and our annoying lizard brains?  That's a topic for another post.  For now, here is how commenter M. finally came around to see inviting feedback as a good thing:

I [think] about it from the perspective of “what would my best self want?” If I’m firing on all cylinders, if I’m being the premium me, as it were – that means that I am someone who is strong enough to hear feedback and make necessary changes, and to have that be a positive and productive experience. Every time I choose to put myself on the line and ask for it, I’m choosing to be the better me and to invest in my own growth.

Pretty smart for a lizard.

On Being an Effective White Anti-Racist Ally

I've been thinking a lot this week about what it means to be a white, anti-racist ally to people of color.  Though I try to live everyday in a way that reflects my values about ending racism, as is the case for most whites, on a typical day I do not have to leave my comfort zone around race.  Every once in a while my mettle as a white ally is tested, and I have to reflect on how well I am really doing.  I have done some training, read some, and thought a lot about what it means to be a white anti-racist ally, but it is something different to have to put those values into practice in real time.  Here are some ideas that feel alive to me right now around this topic: It's Easy and It's Hard It's easy because often it is just as simple as reaching out and connecting with another person in a human way.  Checking in with a colleague or friend of color, showing support and acknowledging what feels challenging.

It's hard because it requires that we stand up in a public way that feels uncomfortable.  Racism is perpetuated, in large part, by the silence of whites.  Saying something that calls attention to our whiteness, and acknowledges our connection to the legacy of white racism in this country can feel risky.  It can also alienate us from other whites, which can feel painful.

It's Not About Being the Good White Person One thing that many whites feel is the need to be viewed as "The Good White Person."  Especially prevalent among liberals, this syndrome is driven by an extreme fear of being perceived as "racist."  The Good White Person couldn't possibly have any racism in her heart because she is so enlightened and anti-racist.  The Good White Person really gets it and wants to make sure people of color and other whites know that.  The Good White Person often ends up making every race conversation about himself.  This stance is not only unhelpful, it is dishonest.  None of us is without racism in our hearts. We cannot be so tied to appearing innocent or evolved that we make the conversation all about us.

It's About Making the First Move and Not Having the Last Word A common white person behavior is to sit back and not talk about race until a person of color brings it up.   Then, we expect the person of color to educate us about racism and tolerance.  This puts all of the burden and risk on people of color, allowing white folks to disengage until we are presented with the subject in a way we cannot ignore.   To be an effective white ally, we must be willing to take on the risk of talking about race in a real way and not always leave it up to others.

White allies must also learn that we cannot always have the last word.  When it comes to race, most white people wish that the issue would just resolve itself and go away.  In heated dialogues, often we try to have the last word in an attempt to "solve the problem" so that we feel better.  One way we do this is by focusing on trying to resolve the individual conflict ("If the two of them could just talk and resolve their issues, everything would be fine") rather than addressing the messier underlying issue ("My colleague is feeling the pain of racism and I can't solve that").  Being an effective white anti-racist ally means listening to, and sitting with, the uncomfortable realities of racism and realizing that no amount of our talking is going to tie everything up in a neat little bow.

Interested in your feedback in the comments.  Thanks.

Feedback From The Corner Office

Each Sunday, the Business section of the NY Times runs "The Corner Office," an interview by Adam Bryant with a prominent CEO about his or her leadership and management style.  What is striking about this week's interview with Yahoo! CEO Carol Bartz, is Ms. Bartz's commitment to giving and receiving regular, timely feedback.   Ms. Bartz views herself as talkative to a fault, and admits that sometimes she has trouble listening.  To counter  these bad habits, Ms. Bartz asks for feedback:

I also ask simple questions, like 'How am I doing? What should I do differently?' At first, people are shocked when you ask them that. They won’t answer right away because they actually don’t think you’re genuine about it, so you have to kind of keep probing and make it safe. They eventually will come around and say, 'Well, just this.'

How many of us are this conscious about asking for regular, in-the-moment feedback?  It is an interaction that carries a certain amount of risk for both parties, and can be uncomfortable because it disrupts conversational norms.  But the potential benefits -- including being able to make minor adjustments before  full-blown problems emerge -- are huge.  

Ms. Bartz is also committed to giving regular feedback.  She describes what she calls her "puppy theory":

When the puppy pees on the carpet, you say something right then because you don’t say six months later, 'Remember that day, January 12th, when you peed on the carpet?' That doesn’t make any sense. 'This is what’s on my mind. This is quick feedback.' And then I’m on to the next thing.

If this regular feedback cycle were the norm, Ms. Bartz suggests, organizations could do away with the formal performance review process altogether.  I would suggest that regular, timely feedback is a good way to go but that a performance review focused on the bigger picture, looking backward and forward, can be a useful compliment.  

As for me, while I feel pretty confident in giving feedback that is specific, timely, actionable and relevant (the "STAR" method), I often gloss over asking for direct feedback.  Especially now, as I juggle a number of group projects, I find myself wondering from time to time, "How am I being perceived by my teammates? Am I being a good team member?"  Not translating these worries into an explicit request for feedback is a missed opportunity for growth.

Ms. Bartz's approach is a good reminder that when we find ourselves with questions about our own performance, the best way to address them may be to simply ask them aloud to others.