Have you ever had the experience of working at a place and just feeling bad every day? Maybe your stomach was always in knots. Maybe you just couldn’t sleep at night. Or maybe your body physically hurt. You just hurt, every day. Simply put, you didn’t feel good. Maybe you wondered if you were going crazy. Could your office be responsible for your bad back or your foul mood?
You weren’t crazy then and you aren’t crazy now. For the last 20 years, there has been a growing body of research on this very question: “Are emotions contagious in the workplace?” The bottom line is “yes” they are. But the answer is more complicated than a simple “yes.” Some workplaces are more contagious than others. Some people are more susceptible to emotional contagion than others. And, of course, some individuals can affect our mood more than others (hint: who signs your check?). The good news is that there are things you can do to overcome and combat contagious emotions in your workplace – three things to be precise.
Curious? I hope so. I did a TEDx talk on this very phenomenon complete with a prescription at the end. Check it out and if you like it, pass it along.
At the end of the day, work should not have to suck. Together, we can make workplaces what they are supposed to be: a source of meaning, purpose, fulfillment and free from dysfunction!
Parenting is hard. And hard things teach lessons. Being a parent has taught me more about leadership than any leadership roles I’ve held or books that I’ve read. But before I dive into some of those lessons, let me open with some parenting background on me. Consider following nuggets straight out of my parenting resume:
I am a parent of three children (13 year old girl, 10 year old boy, 8 year old boy)
My wife and I have been married 16 years and do this parenting thing together as a team
During my time as a parent, I have experienced the following thoughts, feelings and emotions: exhaustion, frustration, embarrassment, anger, determination, pride, joy, happiness and love
No one gave me a handbook on this stuff (my resume might read something like this: “Designed, developed and implemented custom parenting system resulting in no one getting killed or kicked out of school.”)
Given my unique (or not so unique) experiences, below are four things I’ve learned as a parent that I think every leader worth their salt should know and practice:
1. Be tough on the behaviors but not the person.
This is not a new concept. Take any Management 1.0 class, and you’ll likely find this statement on page 1. But what does this really mean? To me as a parent, it means a thousand kisses, hugs and “I love you’s” spread throughout the day and week. But affection alone is not enough if your goal is to raise fully formed adults. It also means being tough on behaviors. It is a rare day in my house that I’m not lecturing one of my kids on some behavioral misstep. From remembering to bring home their homework, to being respectful to their mother, the list goes on. Interestingly enough, if you want to have a narcissist for a child, do the opposite. A recent study of narcissism in children found that parents who had narcissistic children, gave little affection. Rather, they filled that void by telling the child how great he or she is all of the time. In other words, they are soft on behaviors and tough on the person. No thank you.
2. Clarity is king.
Ever tell a 4 year old to go clean his or her room? In the infamous words of Dr. Phil, “How did that work for you?” The story ends the same way every time. The parent walks into the room a short time later only to discover the room still looks as if a bomb had gone off. Standing in the middle of the seemingly-untouched chaos is a smiling 4 year old announcing proudly that they cleaned their room. Clearly there was a miscommunication. In the workplace, the number one dysfunction I see with leaders is something that I learned as a parent all-too-well. If you aren’t clear in your expectations, there is no telling what you are going to get. At home and at work, I try to practice a version of the military’s “Commander’s Intent.” The goal is to clearly articulate the “What,” the “When,” the “Why,” and, in the case of a less-than-fully-competent report (or child), the “How” of every mission. At my house, it would look like this:
Me: “Aaron (my 8 year old), you need to get your shoes on right now. The bus comes in 10 minutes. If you don’t have your shoes on when the bus comes, your mom will have to drive you to school. That will cost you $5 for her services. Do you want to pay mom $5?”
Aaron: “No sir.”
Me: “Good. Get your shoes on and let us know if you need any help.”
And when in doubt, I stop and ask whoever I am speaking to, to repeat what I just said. In the workplace, I take the same approach with my coaching clients. After all, in the case of my clients, if they are unclear on the “what,” “when,” “why” and “how,” it could cost them their job. It’s all about clarity.
3. It is not a democracy.
In our house, we have the mantra “decision makers pay.” My kids know that the “leadership team” is my wife and me. “And how does one join the leadership team?” my 13 year old daughter slyly asks. “$1,000 a month is the on-going fee for membership,” I reply. And only when one becomes a member of the leadership team are they allowed to make decisions that impact the family. In other words, Noah (my 10 year old) can’t have whatever he wants for dinner just because he doesn’t like fish. Or Abby can’t complain about riding the bus one morning because her mom didn’t have time to take her. In addition, only members of the leadership team are allowed to “edit” others in the household. Our children are not allowed to edit us. Rather, my kids’ job is to author and our job is to edit. Talk to any leader in any company and they’ll tell you that their best direct reports author and bring things to them to edit. Their worst direct reports sit back and either complain or wait to be told what to do. I have found that I can’t lead at home or at work if I’m trying to make everyone happy. The goal is not happiness. The goal is growth.
4. Failure is a great teacher.
I was with an executive coaching client last week reviewing his feedback from his team. One piece of feedback that he received stood out from all of the rest. It went something like this, “Sam is the best leader I’ve ever had the privilege to work for. I only have one thing I wish he would change. I wish he would let us occasionally fail so we could learn on our own.” In my life, failure has been a great teacher. It has taught me resilience, self-confidence, initiative, resourcefulness and perseverance. And yet, intentionally watching others that you care about fail and suffer all of the consequences of that failure is one of the most difficult gifts any parent (or leader for that matter) can give.
As a mentor of mine once said to me:
“All day long we work with adults. But don’t be mistaken. They aren’t really adults. They are secretly children stuck at various stages of development in adult bodies.”
If you look at it that way, maybe the connection between parenting and leadership isn’t that tenuous after all.
Contrary to popular belief, LOVE is not a four-letter word in the workplace (I’m sure many of my HR friends are cringing right now, furiously composing a rebuttal). And yet, it is a rare workplace in which I encounter a leader comfortable enough to embrace the power of love (shout out to Huey Lewis) in how he or she leads. Emotional distance is safer. As one leader recently shared with me, “I keep a safe distance with all of my direct reports because I may one day have to let them go. It is much easier to have those conversations if I don’t know anything about them personally or don’t have a deeper connection with them.” No doubt, arms-length leadership is the safe play, the legal play. But arms-length leadership is neither inspiring nor compelling leadership.
For the purposes of this post, consider the notion that “leaders must love to truly gain the commitment of others.” Love is a powerful form of positive energy, and simply put, leadership is all about pumping energy into a system in order to drive alignment and progress. Whether we are talking about inspiration or instilling urgency, leadership is all about energy.
“leaders must love to truly gain the commitment of others.”
Consider the following leadership loves that I would argue great leaders possess:
Love the mission and purpose of the organization. They feel an emotional connection to the “why” of the organization and are comfortable sharing that passion with others.
Love the customers they serve. They care about their customers enough to be curious about their customers’ needs and how the organization might be able to make their lives better.
Love their employees. They feel a deep commitment and care for the people they lead.
Love their jobs. They consider themselves blessed to have the privilege to touch so many lives and lead others to something better. Their role brings them joy and a personal sense of purpose.
Leaders that have these four leadership loves inspire others. They have the ability to lead others through difficult change. Followers and customers alike give them the benefit of the doubt in times of uncertainty.
Leading with love is a long-term strategy. It is rewarded with loyalty and commitment from others. Arms-length leadership is a short-term strategy and is rewarded with temporary commitments until something better comes along (something better always does seem to come along).
So what are you waiting for? Time to stop playing the field and time to get serious. Take a chance and lead with your heart.
I’m a culture geek. I’m not afraid to admit it. I’m a pocket-protector-wearing culture nerd. While others think about stuff like who’s going to win the Super Bowl or the latest round of celebrity gossip, I think about culture. Disney parks, Ritz Carlton hotels, Google, SouthWest Airlines, NetFlix, Chick-fil-A, etc… if the company is associated with culture, I read up on them, spend my money with them and generally try to figure out what makes them tick. And while I’m fascinated by the systems, processes and policies that these companies put in place to support their culture, don’t be mistaken. I’ve come to realize that it is not the systems or policies that make culture. It’s the leadership. Culture begins and ends with leadership.
It is in this way that the topic of leadership and culture can extend beyond the board room table to the kitchen table. Great leaders lead and set a clear culture. I’ve found the same phenomenon to be true at home. The most effective parents have a clear culture set inside the four walls of their home that contributes to the growth and development of their children and the family.
What is Culture?
You may be thinking, “Brandon, what do you mean by culture?” Simply put, culture is what happens when you aren’t around. It defines how stuff gets done. In the business world we often link culture to execution. If your team is getting stuff done while you are away at the conference, you’ve got an effective culture.
“Culture is what happens when you aren’t around.”
At home, we can make the same statement. Are members of your “organization” doing what they are supposed to do when you aren’t around?
Whether we are talking about your team at work or your ankle-biters at home, the question for you is the same: “what culture do you want and how are you going to set it?”
How Leaders Set a Strong Culture at Work and at Home
To answer that question, we can turn our attention to leaders of companies with strong cultures. Over the years, I’ve noticed some common behaviors amongst almost all of these leaders. And along the way, I’ve also helped myself to their approaches and applied them at home with some interesting outcomes. Consider the following leadership traits related to leading strong cultures:
They see their roles as “protectors of the culture.” Listen to any leader of an organization with a strong culture and they’ll tell you that their role is not to run the business. Rather, they see their role as the “protector of the culture.” Dan Cathy, CEO of Chick-fil-A is a perfect example. Protecting a culture is a full-time job and full time role whether we are at work or at home. It means making decisions based on the values one is trying to reinforce. Several years ago, my 10 year old was pushing us to let him quit karate. He hated sparring class because it was hard. My wife and I talked together about the importance of teaching him “resilience” and how important it was for us to protect the values of resilience and courage in our household. We wouldn’t let him quit. He’s scheduled to get his black belt next year.
They make their values clear and simple. The best cultures have simple, sticky and memorable sets of values that can be easily recited inside the organization. At home it should be no different. One of my personal favorites that all of my children in my home can recite in their sleep is the following values statement: “Decision-makers pay.” When a child is complaining about the fantastic gourmet dinner that mom cooked, I announce to the table that this particular child is showing leadership and would like to decide what we will be having for dinner. And as a result, this member of the family will also be buying dinner for the family. After a brief pause to contemplate my statement, the child then makes the following statement to the table, “mom, dinner looks and smells wonderful. Thank you for making it.” Culture, baby.
They talk about the culture every day. We get this. Jack Welch famously commented that as a leader of a large organization, you’ll find yourself talking about values and culture on a daily basis until you are blue in the face. This is where I’m going to ruffle some feathers, folks. Ready? You can’t outsource this. As parents and leaders, it requires a regular presence. If you are not home more nights than not, you aren’t talking about culture. You aren’t leading culture. Just like if you were the CEO of a company, you’d never consider hiring a part-time worker to be the culture advocate at your company. Hiring help at home and expecting them to carry the culture flag is unrealistic and unfair.
They punish swiftly and severely when culture is violated. I was talking to a senior HR leader just last week at a Best Places To Work organization and he shared with me this great story. After searching for some time, he and the CEO hired an external candidate to serve as the President of a division. After just three weeks on the job, they were hearing more and more complaints from the President’s team until eventually the whole team went to leadership and told repeated stories of arrogance, disrespect and condescending behavior. Within 3 hours the President was pulled into HR and “invited to leave.” Leaders of strong cultures punish violators swiftly and severely. I got the pleasure of having one of these conversations with my 13 year old daughter this morning. It was not pretty. Dad probably came in a little too “hot.” Hopefully she got the message, but time will tell. Being a parent is hard.
They win with their culture. Culture is one of the few competitive advantages of any company that simply can’t be copied. It is so specific to the people and, more importantly, the leadership that it can serve as a huge competitive advantage for companies that do it well. Think Disney parks. They dominate the amusement park industry like no other. In 2009 while the industry reported significant revenue losses as a result of the recession, Disney marched forward with nearly 5% topline growth and has continued the march forward since. We get what “winning” means at work but what does winning mean at home? Ultimately, winning as parents is the development of fully formed adults that make positive contributions to society. But consider this short-term definition of a winning culture at home that I find to be particularly helpful. It goes back to the statement that culture is what happens when you aren’t around. My kids may behave poorly at home (not an uncommon experience for any parent, I would imagine) but frankly, it matters less to me than when we aren’t around. When my children are at school, at a friend’s house or staying with the grandparents, they represent us. They are Smith-Culture Ambassadors. If I get glowing reports from teachers, parents, grandparents, strangers and even wait staff at restaurants, I know I’m doing my job. However, a bad report is a failing grade for leadership and for the culture. An overhaul is in order.
So there you have it. One culture geek’s effort at taking best practices in the working world and bringing them home. And if you doubt my geekiness, enjoy the following picture. And yes, we wore those the whole day.
Who would have thought being a parent would be so itchy?
I need to come clean with you. Open kimono. Full transparency. The naked truth. Here it is:
I have less patience with others.
And I’m a better leader and person today than I used to be.
“What are you talking about Brandon? What could have happened to you? After all, you used to be so ‘nice’.” My answer is three words: I HAD CHILDREN, three of them – a girl (Abbigail, 13) and two boys (Noah, 10 and Aaron 8). Through my own journey as a parent, I have become convinced that parenting can be one of the best training grounds for leadership. It is a trial like no other. It forces you to determine what you stand for, defend those beliefs, set boundaries, make sacrifices, consistently and clearly communicate your expectations and hold others accountable on a daily basis. Sounds a lot like leadership, huh? And like leadership, most people are not very good at it. The unholy truth is that there are many more ineffective parents than there are effective ones. Go to any public place and you’ll find more lazy or failing parents than you’ll find parenting rock stars. How can you tell? Easy. Just look at their kids. If you see children exhibiting any of the following behaviors, you’ve got clear signs of ineffective parents: rudeness, anxiety, disrespect, whining, paralyzing fear, abuse, self-centered attitudes and demanding “prince and princesses.” These are all signs of parents that do not lead.
Want to avoid all that stuff and be an effective leader at home? Consider the following traits of parenting rock stars:
Set a culture of what is acceptable and not acceptable clearly, consistently and regularly
Are not afraid of initiating conflict and must always be prepared to lecture, punish or deliver time-outs at the drop of a hat.
Must be prepared to hold the line. A parent’s authority will be challenged on a daily basis.
Are committed to their leadership team first and foremost. The most effective parents are committed first to their spouses and second to their children. Parenting is not a democracy where everyone has an equal vote.
Focus on developing their children and recognize that they will likely have to adjust their development approach for each child in order to be effective.
Are master cheerleaders. They love their children unconditionally and let them hear and feel that love on a daily basis.
Communicate what is going on in the world and what it means to the family in a way that reinforces values and lowers anxiety.
Raise their children so that the role of parent is no longer necessary. Effective parents strive to raise healthy fully-formed adults that contribute to society (and others) positively.
Is leadership in any business or organization materially different? And yet, we rarely give parenting its proper due. In an effort to be politically correct, we tend to downplay the role of parenting as if it is equivalent to some sort of hobby to be taken up on the weekends like adopting a puppy or joining a skeeball league.
Parenting is hard. Leadership is hard. Over the next few posts, my hope is to make you more efficient and effective on both fronts.
In the meantime, get off my lawn. I’m taking a nap.