My reading journey this year

 

I’ve enjoyed a particularly rich crop of books this year and given how much I enjoy reading other”Best of 2017″ lists, I will share a version of my own.  My full list is available on goodreads.

At the end of last year, I began getting deep enjoyment from audiobooks either purchased from Audible or borrowed from the library.  Audio books (which can be put on sleep timers) are a source of great solace to me during chronic periods of insomnia.  Audible often has generous offers for new members and I have signed up for the “Audible daily deal” which has delivered me some inexpensive gems this year.

I read very little fiction but a book that will now live near the top of my favourites list for the incredible writing is Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.  The story’s focus on a hostage-taking was likely the main turn-off after years of persistent recommendations from friends but I am glad that I finally got around to it. This was an Audible purchase and well worth it for the first rate narration.  I also enjoyed Manhattan Beach on audiobook.  Set during WWII, I liked the strong female lead – a woman who becomes a diver while exploring the mystery of her father’s disappearance.

In the continuing work to improve my own writing and help others write well,  I get deep enjoyment from reading about writing.  The top of the list for this year was Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott.  I also found a documentary on Lamott at my library by the same title.   Even this clip from the documentary gave me a belly laugh – “I used to be unable to write with dirty dishes in the sink. I have now had a child.  I could now write with a cadaver in the sink”.   Another book which touches on the writing process is Ann Patchett’s collection of non-fiction writing covering the span of her career called This is the Story of a Happy Marriage.  Patchett’s book includes her beloved dog and training for a the LAPD.  The latter experience involved learning to go over a six foot wall.  She describes that as with most things you are trying to learn, she would have preferred to learn this in private.  Unfortunately there are no six foot brick walls in wide open fields.  I also stepped into reading about how specialized writers have mastered their craft.  Digging into Poking a Dead Frog: Conversations with Today’s Top Comedy writers was an unexpected delight.

I love memoirs and personal essays and had a banner year in this area. I listened to The Argonauts, read by the author Maggie Nelson.  This is an unconventional memoir which dances with philosophy.  It is principally about the author’s partner transitioning to a man.  Another unconventional but highly enjoyable read was The Art of Travel a book of essays on travel drawn from both the author’s own travel experiences and those of notable writers.  I listened to Roxane Gay read her memoir Hunger.  It was a moving but brutal read but a good empathy jolt for me.  I channelled my early life as a biology student by reading Lab Girl – a great memoir of a female scientist and some lovely meditations on the natural world.  Also in the science realm, I listened to  The Gene, a comprehensive history of a new science.  The Gene is not for the faint of heart  – it is a long haul at over 600 pages but it is a fascinating work.  In a slightly different vein, I adored reading an anthology of performance pieces by “The Moth” – a group in New York City where people perform monologues of stories of their lives.  The Moth presents All These Wonders: True Stories about Facing the Unknown.  There is a great variety of material, all well-drawn and very satisfying.  This anthology tuned me into the related podcast and it has become one of my favourites.  I also really enjoyed listening to Born a Crime on audio-book – brilliantly read by the author Trevor Noah.  It chronicles his childhood growing up on South Africa as a bi-racial person.  I found When Breath Becomes Air very thoughtful and moving book about a neurosurgeon facing his own imminent death.

I fulfilled a personal commitment by reading the summary report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.  Reading the work had the desired effect of deepening my understanding of issues touching indigenous peoples. It also gave me nightmares.  It also spurred me on to make greater efforts to appreciate indigenous artists.  A concert highlight of the year was being introduced to William Prince.  William is getting some well deserved awards as an emerging artist.  As well, I went to hear an interview at the National Arts Centre with the new Director of Indigenous Theatre.  Though we are several months out from hearing the line-up, this new stream will be funded at the same level as the English and French streams.  We have lots to look forward to both in Ottawa and in the rest of Canada as there will be community based shows funded via the NAC as well.

I still read a lot of business books out of personal interest and I really enjoyed Radical Candor about being firm and compassionate at the same time.  The same authors present a podcast as well.  I was fascinated by the concepts introduced in Collaborating with the Enemy. This book challenges the idea that you need shared outcomes to advance a collaborative process.

I continued to wade into graphic novels though there were no huge standouts.  I did enjoy Smile, a memoir aimed and younger readers about a girl going through a series of dental surgeries. I also found the memoir of the father’s loss of a child, Roasalie Lightening very moving but wasn’t drawn to the artwork.

To close, books that I enjoyed that don’t fit as cleanly into the categories above but would fall into the general self-help genre: I enjoyed Rising Strong by Brene Brown about resetting after adversity and Happiness by Design which introduces various elements of design thinking to help you adopt good habits.

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Radical Candor

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Though I read pretty widely in management literature, it is becoming more rare that I will jump into texts with much gusto.  I was therefore quite happy to be introduced by colleagues to the podcast related to the book Radical Candor about finding the right intersection between compassion and engaging employees with direct challenge.  Though some managers may naturally fall into the middle if this intersection, I’d reckon that most of us fall to one side of the equation and will benefit from strategies to help walk toward the other side of the equation a bit more.

I found the definition of challenging directly very useful: without calling into question your confidence that someone can do the job, leave little room for interpretation for how the work does not meet your expected standards.

The premise that we can find a happy medium between being obnoxiously candid and ruinously empathetic can seem simplistic but the author teases out the some key preconditions for success that I think are worthy of reflection.

The thing I found most useful is that we are able tap into the benefits of challenging people directly, only after we have taken the time to build a relationship with them.   As the author reminds us, the emotional labour of being a boss is often discounted.  The book offers good suggestions about how to do this which involve learning about each team member’s values and whether they see themselves on a slow growth trajectory (rock stars) or a superstar trajectory.

Rockstars love their work and have found their groove and unfortunately often don’t get fair ratings for being gurus.  It’s important not to take away their craft. In contrast, superstars who want to grow constantly.

Each team needs a mix of both types of employees and we should guard against building teams in which each team member mirrors our own outlook on career.  We should also be alert to employees who change their perspectives over time depending on their personal circumstances.  When kids are very young, you may want to be a rock star, as they age, you may be ready to move into a superstar role.

I also liked the amount of time spent on explaining why giving praise is a necessary part of the feedback loop. Specifically, praise is not about babysitting egos. It guides people in the right direction as to what they can continue to do and how to keep improving. I also really liked the passages suggesting that you should spend as much time getting your facts right when you praise as when you criticize. Think of the harm that is done when the wrong person is praised for the wrong thing or a single person is praised when an entire team carried a project across the line.

The book (especially the first half) and the podcasts are recommended.  I found them enjoyable given the stories (many cringe-worthy) that are used to illustrate  points.

Two-Thirds of Managers Are Uncomfortable Communicating with Employees

We are in March madness for finishing our year end appraisals in the public service so this is timely.  I don’t think that it would be a surprise that giving feedback that may not be well received is stressful for anyone – managers or clients or friends.  It’s a skill I will be working on for the rest of my life.  And though I have benefitted greatly from this book on Difficult Conversations which I consider a management bible, I have likely gotten as much benefit from cross-discipline study on empathy and compassion.

I was more disheartened to see here that the issue could be framed as widely as communicating writ large and that giving credit or recognition were sources of significant difficulty for so many managers.

That said, I am a very introverted person by nature and I would suspect that there are many other introverted managers out there learning new communication patterns to align with this role.

What has helped me most was likely deliberate practice for all types of communications. Something greater than “just do it” though that is half the battle.

A former coach asked me to put a post-it on my computer to remind me to initiate more phone calls over emails – it was a good move.  I got so much more useful information at the margins of those conversations then I had ever planned that it became a habit.

For recognition, I have been influenced by this excellent book, and I now prepare so I can be very clear on why a person’s contribution is appreciated.  I’ve watched train wrecks where someone freestyles it and the wrong person is congratulated for something and soaring moments where significant and long-standing contribution is paid meaningful tribute.

For difficult conversations, I (over) prepare to try and understand the issue, the effect on the team and what my role is in the situation.  For these ones, the most difficult preparation is to remember to both stay on message and roll with the punches.  You may want to jump in at the deep end and be aware of your own reactions to stress so you can have strategies to moderate in advance.

And for any communication that I’d find a challenge, I try to create my own feedback loop as to what went well and what I can do better in future.  Lastly, I benefit from remembering  while I am learning that learning to receive feedback is its own skill.

Source: Two-Thirds of Managers Are Uncomfortable Communicating with Employees

Building stomach for the journey of tough decisions

A colleague and I did an online course on adaptive leadership this fall.  The course was free (through +Acumen) and supported by generous excerpts from a book called The Practice of Adaptive Leadership.

The general idea is that we need to adapt our leadership to situations and the course guides you through exercises which would help you probe particular areas which might require your adaptive skills.  The work of the course is to separate technical challenges from ones that are more complex and need emotional commitment and engagement.

Some of the  readings that resonated with me were on the execution of tough decisions.

“Tough decisions require that you put your heart into them, nourish the possibilities and then make a commitment to a course of action. If you are struggling with a decision then it is likely that all the options have merit.  Outcomes are usually significantly influenced by factors beyond your control and imagination.  And most decisions are iterative.  You can make a move, take the risk and if things are going well, continue, and if not, take corrective action.  See if you can lighten the load on your decisions and even make better choices because tough does not necessarily mean important – stakes may not be as high as you imagine them to be (versus medical judgements which are high stakes).  Maybe you are just making the next move on the dance floor. Think of a past tough decision and take heart in knowing that you survived whatever decision you made. And if you need to give yourself permission to fail, prepare the ground for your constituents.  Enlist them in giving it a shot – language is crucial – not that you can be counted on to pull this off but rather, perhaps that you are trying something to push the envelope.”

 

And on building stomach for the journey:

“Building resilience is similar to training for a marathon.  You need to start somewhere…In an organizational context, this can kind of training can take the form of staying in a difficult conversation longer than you normally would etc.[…] To further build your stomach for the adaptive leadership journey keep reminding yourself of your purpose.  Runners look forward, not down.  Saying focused on the goal ahead will keep you from being preoccupied or overwhelmed by the number of steps necessary to get there. ”

“Leading adaptive change will almost certainly test the limits of your patience. […] Impatience can hurt you in numerous ways.  Your raise a question and don’t get an immediate response.  So you jump right in and keep pounding on the question.  Each time you pound, you send the message that you are the only person responsible for that question. You own it.  And the more you pound away, the less willing people are to share ownership of the question themselves.  And if they do not feel any ownership of the question they will have less investment in whatever the resolution turns out to be.”

“You can find patience by tapping into your ability to feel compassion for others involved in the change effort.  Compassion comes from understanding other people’s dilemmas, being aware of how much you are asking of them.  Your awareness of their potential losses will calm you down and give you patience as you travel a journey that may be more difficult for them than for you.”

If you want to take on a patience building exercise:  Recall situations in the past when you have experienced great patience and think about what enabled you to do that.  Perhaps you were patient as your child learned something and you could remember yourself how hard it was for you to learn these skills.   Or you believed that most people survive difficult journeys and mastered needed skills so you had optimism that fuelled your patience.

Should authority figures hide their emotions?

 

(c) Rell DeShaw

An interesting exchange about expressing emotions generated as a result of our work.

The two examples are of a journalist breaking down during reports on the Paris attacks and a judge weeping during a trial.  We are all emotional beings and it is normal that we will be affected by our work.  That said, we may be in jobs where our expression of our own emotions about a situation might not be a helpful add-on to helping others understand what we are trying to convey.  As I’ve discussed before, if someone is enraged with you, a fear reaction can actually cause you to go temporarily deaf – you’ll miss most of what they’ve said (though you’ll get that they were really mad).

I’m more and more convinced that as I work with top notch professionals who are putting out their best every day, it’s enough to say “this didn’t quite hit the mark” to make your point in most cases.

I liked that the exchange in this article made it clear that though expressions of emotions can occur involuntarily or justifiably in  a work context the emotions don’t make the essential message any more true:

“…[W]hile a reporter’s emotions may pay testament to his humanity, they should not be mistaken for the path to a deeper truth.”

 

The Best Managers Are Boring Managers

A good article written in praise of the boring, emotionally-intelligent and even sometimes “faking it” manager:

“…[t]he more predictable, reliable, and, yes, boring, they are, the higher they’re rated on integrity, and the more morally they behave.”

Source: The Best Managers Are Boring Managers

Getting to yes with yourself and other worthy opponents

Getting to yes with yourself and other worthy opponents by William Ury

This is a review of a recent read billed as a prequel to Getting to Yes the famous negotiation text that focuses on finding solutions of mutual agreement. I liked it because it knitted together other books that have changed my thinking such as the Art of Possibility and texts on non-violent communication.  The book is about exploring how much of a negotiation is within your own control including attitudes and behaviours.   Most powerful for me were two bits: 1) the reminder that we can find ways to create shared value to overcome scarcity thinking (the win/win/win approach – where are winning for each party and the greater good).  For example a union/management dispute might focus on the customers and 2) the exploration about self care through mediation as a path to creating space for empathy for others.

The book is framed around six tenets and largely illustrated with a combination of stories from negotiation in high stakes conflicts and raising a daughter who has required 14 major surgeries. I think it might have been a slightly richer read of you had “Getting to Yes” fresh in your mind but is a stand alone book.

1) Put yourself in your shoes

This is about holding true to what you really need and remembering that only one person is needed to transform a relationship.

2) Think about your best alternative to a negotiated agreement.

This is about making an unconditional commitment to take care of your own needs no matter what other people do. This gives you confidence of an alternate plan and less dependent on others to meet your needs though the alternatives may not be obvious or easy

3) Reframe your picture

This is about seeing the world as a place of safety and saying “yes” to the world the way it is. If you see the world as hostile you will react differently than if you see the world as friendly.  With exceptions, we are generally more resilient than we’d imagine and significant events, good or bad will not have a lasting effect on our happiness (whether you lose both legs in an accident or win the lottery, researchers have found that people have the same level of happiness a year later). Most of our losses and worries are overblown. Some conflict is because we think that only another person can make us happy, especially through relinquishing when we have more capacity within our selves for making happiness.

4) Stay in the zone

This is about trying to put ourselves in a place where we can neutralize reactions and access our natural creativity. We want to try to be in a state of relaxed alertness so we can look for the present opportunity – we can see openings if we are in a place to see them.

We are trying to let go of our internal resistance that takes the form of resentments of the past and anxiety about the future. We need to trust the future and have confidence can meet challenges. Having trust is not a one time shift in attitude – we have to constantly choose between fear and trust. We are destined to lose many things so goal is to focus on what lasts and accept what passes

On a practical level, staying in the zone requires us to:
– observe the fear and release it
– take deep breaths
– use simple reality testing questions to determine if threats real or imagined?

5) Respect even if…

Respect and give positive positive attention without feeling the need to like a person or behaviour. We are saying yes to a basic humanity that exists in all of us. Having capacity to extend this respect is related to meeting our our own needs – meditation enhances our ability to see others and dissolves artificial social distinctions to increase elemental respect.

6) Give and receive

The biggest driver of win/lose thinking is scarcity thinking. It would be better to look at ways to expand the pie to sufficiency and even abundance before you divide it. Move from giving and taking (win/lose) to win/win/win thinking. Go from taking to giving and creating value for others.

Under stress a fear of scarcity can take over and we will only create value for ourselves and not others If we feel satisfaction and sufficiency we can address needs of others.

An attitude of giving is to:
– give for mutual gain, give for joy and meaning, give what you are here to give.

Why People Cry at Work – HBR

Why People Cry at Work – HBR.

A useful addition to the literature on communications at work.

The author suggests that there are three general reasons for crying at work:

– a “formidable manager”

Inspiring fear or even respect through expressing power doesn’t form any part of my conscious management style (in fact, quite the opposite) but, sadly, I am not overly patient by nature and moments extreme frustration have brought out my most strident behaviour as a manager making people cry and I feel dreadful about this.

I have also been told that people have cried off site because a disconnect in the direction I was giving and what they needed from me.   In the latter case, I was able to eventually clarify that I had no further direction to give.  A part of high level competency in our world is advancing projects on generalized direction and creating products that no one has ever seen before.  Moving away from templates can make our otherwise often bureaucratic work invigorating though it can also be de-stablizing.  But, I don’t want people to feel destabilized and unsupported.  On this experience, I have now gotten better at saying, I given you all that I know, just put some ideas down and we’ll work through this together.

– the intersection between personal and professional

 As I have written before, I will now solicit and give general information on the goings on in personal lives to help understand how emotions might modulate over time and better understand that a bumpy patch does not mean that someone is fundamentally unsuited for a certain work environment.

– organizational culture and differences.

This includes personal management style and meeting people where they are.  I’ve just finished Bob Sutton’s book Good Boss, Bad Boss and he would counsel that it is OK to show flashes of anger to really get a point across.  I prefer the “pick a face” approach.  I find with high performing teams, their own desire to perform well will be sufficiently bruised by the most moderately presented feedback that there is no need for extreme emotion.  That said, I think it is true that as elaborated in the Talent Code, having a boss you respect enough to want to please and feel a bit intimidated into doing so, doesn’t harm but help.  You stay on your A-game and you work on being prepared to present.

Will we be able to utterly avoid ever crying at work as the author suggests, I doubt it.  I was informed of the sudden death of my father at work and I did want to know this as soon as possible but falling apart at work was a consequence.  People were lovely and supportive on that day and the days to follow.

Empathy is the key to great meetings – HBR

A good article that teases out the utility of empathy and emotional intelligence in meetings to tease out team dynamics.

It has a useful reminder that the emotions of the leader are contagious and they set the tone for the room telling us if we should we celebrate or go to fight or flight mode.

Where I’d like to read more is how to work with empathy as an inexact science.  We can never really know how people are feeling just through observation.  We can ask how people are feeling and why and we can get farther but limits remain depending on how good people are at articulating how they are feeling (I have been in workshops where they handed out lists of emotions to help people name them).

We are then also limited by trying to make a bridge between what is being expressed and our own life experiences to that we can be truly empathetic.   In my own work life, I can usually find a time that I have felt a similar emotion to what employees are expressing to get farther along the empathy continuum.  That said, even all of this works well, my first instinct will often be to offer how I might advance the situation given my own experience.   This may not be the most helpful use of empathy – maybe it is better to use this information with a certain discipline to create the space for employees to create their own way forward.

How to react when someone disappoints

One of those “couldn’t have said it better myself” pieces.

The crux of the advice is that as tempting as it is to vent (belittle, demean) and make yourself feel better in the guise of holding people accountable, it’d be better to focus on how to help the person perform better.

Where Bregman really hits the nail on the head for my money is the remind us that high performing employees already feel your disappointment acutely when you express that something hasn’t hit the mark. You don’t need to spend more time on the disappointment piece but rather on how to build confidence to hit the mark the next time out. This is through building trust that you can get across the finish line.  Best piece of simple advice, take four deep breaths before you react in the moment to figure out how to recalibrate to give your employees what they need to get over the next hurdle.