Powerful Practices to Help You Adapt to Change: Part 1

If the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that change pushes us out of our comfort zone. When the change is significant it can disrupt our peace of mind, making us defensive, close-minded, and anxious.

To thrive in an increasingly unpredictable world, we need to develop better responses to change and perhaps even learn to embrace it. Over the next couple of blogs, I’ll be focusing on four powerful practices that can help you adapt to change.

The First Powerful Practice: Mindfulness

We hear a lot about mindfulness these days. But what is it, exactly?

Mindfulness is making the choice to slow down and notice what you’re thinking and feeling—without judging your thoughts and feelings.

For example, suppose you’ve received news that your company is going to be reorganized and your department is going to be merged with another. For many people, this would trigger a negative feeling like fear or anxiety. It also might trigger some negative self-talk, such as, “Oh no, my job will probably be eliminated.” Notice that in this example, you have a negative feeling (fear/anxiety) followed by a negative judgment (“I’m going to lose my job.”) That’s a double negative!

A mindful approach to hearing about this change would be to pause, take a deep breath, and observe your feelings and thoughts.  Your self-talk might go something like this: “Oh look, I’m feeling fearful and anxious right now. Isn’t that interesting?”  You might notice the thought about losing your job, but you would recognize it as just that—a thought, not reality. You would not attach meaning to it. You would simply witness, rather than judge, these feelings and thoughts.

So, how does this witnessing consciousness help you deal with change? By becoming more aware of what is taking place—both inside and outside of yourself—you can respond to uncertainty with acceptance. Once you acknowledge and accept what is, you will be able to reframe your reaction to the change (“This could be an exciting opportunity”) and adapt more successfully to shifting conditions.

To get out of a reactive state and get into a state of mindfulness, take these steps:

  • Feel your feet on the ground or rub the palms of your hands together. The idea here is to bring you out of your feelings and thoughts and back into your body.
  • Close your eyes and take a deep breath, inhaling to the count of three (1, 2, 3).
  • Slowly exhale for twice as long, to the count of six (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6).
  • Repeat the inhalation/exhalation two more times.

You don’t need to be a yogi to practice mindfulness. For example, my granddaughter, Hannah, teaches music. She recently used the steps above to get a classroom of rowdy, eighth-grade boys to settle into learning and it worked like a charm. If eighth grade boys can become mindful, anybody can!

The Second Powerful Practice: Curiosity

Change takes us into unfamiliar territory, and not knowing increases our anxiety. What can you do to survive and thrive when you’re faced with the unknown? Research tells us that curiosity plays a fundamental role in successfully adapting to change.  In this context, here’s what we mean by curiosity:

Curiosity is a desire to seek information about a change to better understand it, reduce the fear of the unknown, and look for the opportunities it brings.

To stimulate your curiosity, start by asking: “What am I feeling? What am I thinking?” so you can make a choice about what you’re going to do instead of simply reacting to the change. Notice when you’re digging your heels in and thinking, “That’s it. This is horrible.” Take this opportunity to be curious and open-minded by asking, “Hmm, I wonder what’s possible now?

Cultivate curiosity about the change itself. Who is it affecting? What, exactly, is happening? When is it happening? Where is it happening? Gaining knowledge about a subject can often make it less daunting.

Get curious about solutions and positive responses. Who can help you and others with the change? What can you do to help? How might you think about this situation differently?

The story of hotel executive André van Hall is an uplifting example of how one man harnessed the power of curiosity to adapt to a frightening change. In 2011, André began to lose sight in one eye. Over the next several years, his condition progressed to near-total blindness. Rather than reacting by saying, “That’s it. My life is over,” André cultivated curiosity about his condition and began to ask questions. “How will I function as a blind man?” he wondered. “How will I get to work without driving a car? For that matter, how will I get my work done?”

André reached out for resources and advice. He discovered and embraced speech-based computer technology. He and his wife moved to Denver, so he could easily access Denver’s urban transportation system. He learned how to use a cane. He researched organizations that offer guide dogs and was matched with his beloved guide dog, Pelham. André—who now calls himself a Professional Speaker and Curiosity Instigator, sums it up this way: “Instead of simply continuing with life, my curiosity pushed me to flourish!”

By practicing mindfulness and curiosity, you can adapt to whatever changes life throws your way. Keep your eye on this space for Part 2 of this blog series, when I’ll discuss the other two powerful practices for adapting to change: courage and resilience.

Coaching and Servant Leadership Go Hand in Hand

As many of you know, I’m a huge proponent of servant leadership, which is all about putting your people first—giving them the right amount of direction and support for the task at hand and then getting out of their way so that they can do their best work.

There is an element of coaching in every servant leader’s skill set. In fact, being an effective coach requires four communication skills that are also key elements of servant leadership. Here’s how those skills play out in the workplace.

Listen to Learn

When we think of the characteristics of a great leader, being a good listener is always one of the first that come to mind. Why? Because people appreciate a manager who cares about what they think. When you begin a conversation with someone, eliminate distractions so that you will be present and focused. Open your mind to their ideas and perspectives. Resist the temptation to interrupt—allow the person time to think before they speak. Pay attention to nonverbal clues such as tone of voice. Restate your impression of what the person said, or wait and summarize the full conversation at the end—so that they know you understand their point of view. Think of this as listening with the intent of being influenced.

Inquire for Insight

This is about drawing out ideas from the person you’re having a conversation with. Use well thought-out questions to seek information, opinions, or ideas that will help you understand exactly what the person is saying. Open-ended questions encourage communication; for example, “Can you tell me more about that?” Clarifying questions (“when” or “how”) check for understanding. Prompting questions (“what”) promote deeper thinking. 

Tell Your Truth

As a leader, sharing information can help people make decisions in the best interest of themselves, their department, and the organization. Sometimes telling your truth can be uncomfortable—but remember, people without accurate information will often make up their own version of the truth, which can be more negative than reality. Before sharing information, think: Will what I have to say help them succeed? Will this problem resolve itself if I don’t say anything? Could this information help the person avoid obstacles so that they can succeed sooner?

Express Confidence

Toward the end of a coaching conversation with a direct report, let the person know you appreciate them and have their back. Expressing confidence is the best way to build their self esteem and give them feelings of belonging and empowerment. Acknowledging people’s efforts and letting them know in specific language that they are doing a good job will go a long way toward both individual and team engagement.

Being a leader who serves and coaches gives you even more opportunities to establish and build trust with each person on your team. And here’s a bonus: also helps them get to know you better. Leadership is a pleasure when you know you are building meaningful relationships with your people.

You Don’t Have To Do It All Yourself

As a leader, do you feel like you have to do everything yourself—that you can’t count on anyone to take on some the things that need to be done? Perhaps it has occurred to you that you need to delegate some of your work. Why haven’t you? Is it because no one is ready to assume those responsibilities and you don’t have the time to train them?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, it’s time to reconsider your leadership philosophy. Too many leaders make the mistake of thinking that they are at the top of the hierarchical pyramid, responsible for all the planning, organizing, and execution, while their people are below them, responsive to their directives. While there is nothing wrong with the pyramid as an organizational chart, thinking and operating with this top-down approach can lead managers to believe that they must do all the heavy lifting.

The key is to turn the pyramid upside down, so that your people are responsible. Your job is not to do all the work yourself, but to roll up your sleeves and provide people with the direction, coaching, and support they need to accomplish the goals you’ve agreed to. This way, both you and the people who report to you will be successful.

At this point a lot of people say, “But I don’t have time to provide direction, coaching, and support to all the people who report to me!”

Don’t worry; you don’t have to spend all your time working closely with all your people—only those who need your direction and support to develop their competence and commitment. In time, they will become independent, self-motivated, and high performing—freeing you to focus on other priorities.

We call this approach SLII®, the leadership framework outlined in Leadership and the One Minute Manager, a bestseller I coauthored with Patricia Zigarmi and Drea Zigarmi. The book teaches leaders how to set clear goals, diagnose people’s development level on each task, and match their leadership style to the development level of the person they’re leading.

Notice I said “diagnose people’s development level on each task.” Even experienced managers can fall into a trap of seeing people as beginners, moderately competent, or highly experienced. Assuming that because people are experts in one aspect of their job, they’re experts in all aspects can lead to poor performance. Most of us have areas where we’re still learning and need leadership.

For any task, people can be at one of four development levels, depending on their experience and commitment. Your job is to identify and understand those levels and adjust the direction and support you give accordingly. Here’s a brief overview:

Level 1: Enthusiastic Beginner. Appropriate Leadership Style: Directing
Enthusiastic beginners are eager to get started on a task, even though they have not demonstrated expertise. For this task, regardless of the status or tenure of the person being led, the leader needs to provide specific direction about goals, show and tell how, and closely monitor performance so they can provide frequent feedback on the individual’s results.

Level 2: Disillusioned Learner. Appropriate Leadership Style: Coaching
This level usually sets in after an individual has been unsuccessful at a new task. Enthusiasm turns to discouragement and insecurity, and the leader needs to provide direction on how to attain the goal or finish the task. The leader should explain why, solicit suggestions, and begin to encourage involvement in decision-making.

Level 3: Capable But Cautious Performer. Appropriate Leadership Style: Supporting
Once a person has demonstrated skill with a task, the leader and the individual make decisions together. At this stage people may be competent but still need the leader to bolster their confidence and motivation. The leader’s role is to listen, draw out, encourage, and support.

Level 4: Self-Reliant Achiever. Appropriate Leadership Style: Delegating
Once an individual becomes an expert at a task, the leader allows the individual to make most of the decisions about what, how, and when. Because the individual can achieve goals with little direction, the leader’s role shifts to valuing the individual’s contributions and supporting their growth.

It’s Worth the Investment Take time out of your busy day to check in with your people, diagnose their development level on each goal-related task, and give them the leadership style they need. By doing so, you’ll not only empower them to accomplish goals, you also will set them up to assume greater responsibilities. When you look at it this way, you don’t have time not to give people the leadership style they need!

Day-to-Day Coaching: The Best Way to Help People Get an A

An effective performance management system consists of three parts: performance planning, day-to-day coaching, and performance review.

Most organizations, unfortunately, devote the greatest amount of time to the third part of the performance management system: performance review. This is where manager and direct report sit down and assess the direct report’s performance since the last annual review. Over the years I’ve heard HR leaders boast, “You’ll love our new performance review form.” I always laugh because I think most of those forms could be thrown out. Why? Because they tend to measure things nobody knows how to evaluate, such as initiative, willingness to take responsibility, or promotability. When people don’t understand how to win during a performance review, they focus most of their energy up the hierarchy. After all, if you have a good relationship with your boss, you might have a higher probability of getting a good evaluation. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but it’s certainly not an effective way to manage performance.

Many leaders in organizations do a good job on performance planning and set very clear goals with their people. But then what happens to those goals? Most often, they get filed and no one looks at them until it’s time for their annual performance review. Then everybody runs around, bumping into each other, trying to find the goals.

So which of the three parts of the performance management system do you think managers are least inclined to spend time on? You’re right: day-to-day coaching is the most ignored of the three—yet it is the most significant aspect of managing people’s performance. Why? Because the most important feedback—praising progress and redirecting inappropriate behavior—happens on an ongoing basis.

In our book Helping People Win at Work: A Business Philosophy Called “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A,” WD-40 Company CEO Garry Ridge and I discuss in detail how an effective performance management system works.

The book was inspired by my ten-year experience as a college professor. I was always in trouble. What drove the faculty crazy more than anything was how, at the beginning of every course, I gave students the final exam.

When the faculty first found out about it, they came to me and said, “What are you doing?”

I said, “I’m confused.”

They said, “You look it.”

“I thought we were supposed to teach these students.”

“You are, but you don’t give them the final exam ahead of time!”

“Not only will I give them the final exam ahead of time, what do you think I’ll do throughout the semester? I’ll teach them the answers so that when they get to the final exam, they’ll get A’s. Because life is all about getting A’s.”

I tell you this little story because it is a great metaphor for an effective performance management system. Here’s why:

  • Giving the final exam at the beginning of the year is like setting goals during performance planning: it lets people know exactly what’s expected of them.
  • Teaching the answers is what day-to-day coaching is all about. Check in with each person on a regular basis. If you see or hear about someone doing something right, you don’t wait a year to congratulate them during their performance review—you give them a praising on the spot. If they do something wrong, you don’t save your feedback for their review—you redirect them right away to get them back on track toward their goal.
  • Finally, when people get the final exam again at the end of the year—their performance review—they will get an A: a great evaluation.

After learning about this philosophy, Garry Ridge implemented “Don’t Mark My Paper, Help Me Get an A” as a major theme in his company. He is so emphatic about this concept that he has been known to fire managers of poor performers rather than the underachievers if he learns the managers did nothing to help the person in question get an A.

When a performance management system is done right, there are no surprises at performance review time. Team members have stayed focused on their goals and know what a good job looks like—because their manager has connected with them throughout the year with day-to-day coaching to ensure they get an A. Now that’s performance management.

Four Steps to High Performance Teams

Most people use the term “team” loosely in business settings. Yet because so much work today is accomplished by teams, it’s important to clearly define what a team is and examine what makes a team most effective. These characteristics apply whether the team is working virtually or in a physical setting.

We define a team as two or more persons who come together for a common purpose and who are mutually accountable for results. This is the difference between a team and a group. Often, work groups are called teams without developing a common purpose and shared accountability. This can lead to disappointing results and a belief that teams do not work well.

A collection of individuals working on the same task are not necessarily a team. They have the potential to become a high-performance team but first, they need to clarify their purpose, strategies, and accountabilities.

The Characteristics That Make a High-Performance Team

Some teams achieve outstanding results, no matter how difficult the objective. They are at the top of their class. What makes these teams different? What sets them apart and makes them capable of outperforming their peers? Below are the characteristics and best practices that are shared by outstanding teams.

Align for Results. High performance teams begin by aligning for results. They work together to clarify the team’s purpose, so that everyone knows what they’re aiming for. Next, the team members define their goals, outline their respective roles, and agree on behavioral norms.

Perform Under Pressure. Another characteristic of a high-performance team is its ability to perform under pressure. When conflicts arise, issues are embraced and discussed. Team members encourage each other to express their views with candor. Because the goal is to achieve the team’s purpose—rather than to protect individual egos—team members listen with curiosity and openness rather than defensiveness.

Develop Team Cohesion. Anyone who’s watched a championship team perform can observe that the team’s members work in harmony, collaborating with one another and doing whatever is necessary for the good of the whole. No matter what a team member’s role, their contributions are respected and appreciated. Team members trust one another and hold each other accountable, which further develops team cohesion.

Sustain High Performance. The final characteristic of a high-performance team is its ability to sustain its impressive results. The team members continue to demonstrate unity by sharing leadership. A high-performance team will adapt to change and accept even greater challenges.

As you read through the characteristics of high-performance teams, it’s probably no surprise that teams like these are effective. I’ll never forget the time I was invited to a Boston Celtics practice during the heyday of Larry Bird, Robert Parish, and Kevin McHale. Standing on the sidelines with Coach KC Jones, I asked, “How do you lead a group of superstars like this?”

KC smiled and said, “I throw the ball out and every once in a while, shout, ‘Shoot!’”

In observing Jones as a leader, I noticed he didn’t follow any of the stereotypes of a strong leader. During time-outs, the players talked more than KC did. He didn’t run up and down the sidelines yelling things at the players during the game; most of the coaching was done by the team members. They encouraged, supported, and directed each other.

The Celtics of that era exhibited the characteristics of a high-performance team. They were aligned for results, knew how to perform under pressure, had built team cohesion, and had reached a level of sustained high performance that did not rely on the coach for direction to get the job done.

When this low-key leader, KC Jones, retired, all the players essentially said he was the best coach they’d ever had. Why? Because he permitted everyone to lead, and that’s what a team is all about.

Building a highly effective team, like building a great organization, begins with a picture of what you are aiming for—a target.  Let these characteristics be your target. By benchmarking your team in each of these areas, you can identify where you need to improve to become a championship team.