Adapt or Die!

Charles Darwin is quoted as saying: “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones most responsive to change.” Many have interpreted this to mean that we either adapt to our environment or we will die. For us, adapting is a simple concept, but it is often not easy to do!

On a recent backpacking trip, I noticed many odd-shaped trees that had clearly adapted to their environment in order to survive. The trunk of one of tree leaned to the left before creating a complete loop then going straight up. I wonder what caused it to grow that way. I’ll never know, but it got me to thinking about how we adapt in our relationships. 

In leadership and marriage, we too must adapt to our circumstances or we may die. We may not suffer a physical death, but if we don’t adapt, our relationships may die or be severely damaged.  In marriage, not adapting to our spouse may result in separation, divorce, conflict, contempt, or at best, coexisting without any real closeness, conversation, or relationship. “Two ships passing in the night.” 

A leader who does not adapt may come across as rigid, uncaring, confrontational, and demanding, which may lead to tension, conflict, and stress with and between team members. Team members may feel devalued. If the failure to adapt continues, the leader may be terminated, high performers may leave for a better work environment, or teams may produce less than they are capable of producing.

Change is not easy, but it is necessary if we want to avoid or reduce the pain associated with not changing.

Here are some considerations for adapting:

  • Accept the truth that your way may not always be the best way.
  • Be open to change and prepared mentally to respond when confronted with a situation that may require changing.
  • Choose to create a mindset that change is good and healthy for relationships.
  • Embrace the possibility that change may be good for you, even better than you can imagine.
  • Make a list of all of the benefits from adapting to the change you are facing. (Of course, be responsible and weigh that list against the risks of adapting and the risk of not changing.)
  • Seek input from team members, trusted advisors, or others when confronted with a situation that may require change.

As you reflect back on your life and career, you will most likely be able to identify times when you adapted and times when you chose not to adapt. In some cases, your choice served you well, while at other times, choosing to adapt rather than resisting change might have yielded a better outcome. 

Make the simple choice to adapt, then have the courage to persevered and follow through so you can experience something better than you can imagine.

Set Clear Expectations

One of the more common sources of conflict in relationships is around expectations, mainly those that are unclear or unspoken. It should be simple for us to state our expectations, but because it’s not always easy, many of us fail to do it. Why is that the case? 

When we set expectations, we are telling someone what we want, desire, or need (or sometimes what we don’t), but we don’t want to come across as pushy, overbearing, demanding, or needy. There’s risk involved. By setting expectations, we are putting a stake in the ground, drawing a line in the sand, setting a boundary, or in some way putting ourselves on the line. When we do, we need to figure out how to respond when our expectations aren’t met and how to address it with the other person in a way that’s healthy. All of these (and more) may be thoughts going through our mind, but the question we need to ask ourselves is, what am I gaining and what am I losing by not stating my expectations?

I guess one way we gain by not sharing our expectations is that we never need to worry about them not being met by someone else. Well, if that were true, then unspoken expectations would not be a source of tension. In reality, they are a source of tension because whether we share our expectations or not, they are still our expectations, and we, by definition, expect them to be met one way or another. So, when they are not met, we become frustrated, angry, or upset. Our relationship suffers as a result. 

When we set and clearly share our expectations with our spouse or those who work with us, we actually provide them with a goal or target. We provide them direction, not specific instructions about how to accomplish the task (although they could be included in setting expectations), but more about what you want them to accomplish. Then they know what’s expected and don’t have to guess! The key is to keep expectations simple, or at least clear, and not to have so many that it becomes near impossible for someone to meet them and keep track of them. Oh, and if or when your expectations change, be sure to let them know right away. Otherwise, they become unspoken expectations that they have no chance of meeting. 

Once you’ve share your expectation, it is just as important to confirm that the other person understands them. This can take the shape of a simple question like: “Are you clear about what I am asking?” or “What questions do you have about what I’m expecting?” Of course, this needs to be asked in a posture and tone of openness so that the other person doesn’t feel that he or she will be belittled or berated for asking a question for clarification.

If things aren’t getting done in the way you expect, take an honest self-assessment by asking yourself if you are providing your expectations, or whether you are being clear when you do. If not, spend some time to consider and write down what you expect. Then, take the simple step of sharing your expectations, clearly and concisely. You’ll be amazed at the difference it makes at work and in your marriage and family!

Do Not Fix It!

Resist the urge to fix a problem that your spouse or team member brings to you. Let things play out and see what happens. Oh so simple to say, but not at all easy to do! Like many men and leaders, I am a problem-solver. When someone comes to me with a problem, I naturally and quickly go into fix it mode. While this may yield results (ie, a solution), it is not always in the best interest of the relationship. Plus, it may reduce your influence as a leader. 

In marriage, it is common for a man to want to fix a problem or situation that his wife shares with him. This frequently causes frustration or conflict because she often doesn’t want her husband to come up with a solution.  Most (or at least many) women want to share their feelings and be able to process out loud. They want their husband to simply listen. That’s hard for many of us men to do!

In leadership, being in fix-it mode with your team can work against you as well. If you are always the one who solves the problems, your team will start looking to you for the answers and will stop thinking for themselves. Or, they will only take their thinking so far because they know you’ll have your own spin on it once they share with you. This adds to your workload and stress level! Part of your role as a leader is to help your team members to be their best, so if they are giving you anything less than that, you have an obligation to help them push past where they are.  Additionally, the same scenario that happens in marriage may be playing out at work. Women (and sometimes men) may be coming to you to listen while they process out loud, rather than to have you solve their problem. They simply need to be heard, and once they are, they can move on and continue to find better solutions.

So, here are some tips to help avoid fixing something for someone else:

  • If they only come with a problem, ask them what solutions they’ve considered thus far. If they don’t have any, ask them to come back to you when they have at least one, but ideally more than one.
  • Ask them if they are giving you their best thinking. Asking this question forces them to assess whether they’ve thought it through enough on their own. If you ask it consistently, they will eventually start coming with solutions, or at least options, rather than just the problem.
  • Before they start describing what’s going on or as soon as you can interrupt, ask something like: “Do you want me to fix it (help you find a solution) or just listen?” This one question has been tremendously helpful in my marriage, but it can also be just as helpful at work.
  • When the urge to fix it rises up, take a deep breath and pause. Ask yourself whether it sounds like something the other person (or team) can fix on their own. Have they taken it as far as you think they are capable of doing? If not, then encourage them to continue. 
  • Be open to solutions that are different than what you would do. Allow for the possibility that their solution may be better, even if it doesn’t appear that way on the surface. (Of course, good judgment needs to be used in this situation, particularly where stakes are high.)

When all else fails, just stop it! This video clip from the Bob Newhart Show illustrates the point in a humorous way. To avoid fixing problems that our spouse or team member doesn’t really want fixed, sometimes we just need to “stop it.” Simple, but not easy.

Just Don't Think About It!

How many times has someone said to you, “just don’t think about it”? It’s simple to say, but not always easy to do! Thoughts are powerful, so it is important for us to know how to control them. Julaine and I visited Niagara Falls recently and we were in awe of the power of water falling 175 feet, sometimes moving rocks, but always pulverizing or eroding soil, vegetation, and rocks. Thoughts have every bit as much power, and if they are not controlled, they can cause serious damage to ourselves and others.

Thoughts, whether negative or positive, are what generate feelings, attitudes, reactions, body language, tone of voice, and behaviors. Nearly everything we (and others) see or feel starts with a thought. How aware are you of your thoughts? If you became fully aware (as much as humanly possible) of your thoughts, how could that impact your view of yourself, others, your work, your marriage, or life in general? 

In her book, “Switch on Your Brain,” Dr. Caroline Leaf shares results from her research, as well as that of others, which shows biological changes occurring from thoughts. She states that “The design of the brain allows us to capture and discipline chaotic thoughts. Research dating back to the 1970s shows that being introspectively aware of our thoughts in a disciplined way, rather than letting them chaotically run rampant can bring about impressive changes in how we feel and think. Purposefully catching your thoughts can control the brain’s sensory processing, the brain’s rewiring, the neurotransmitters, the genetic expression, and cellular activity in a positive or negative direction. You choose.” So, how we choose to think has a powerful impact on physiology and our own well-being!

Dr. Leaf also shares that “God designed humans to observe our own thoughts, catch those that are bad, and get rid of them. The importance of capturing those thoughts cannot be underestimated because research shows that the vast majority of mental and physical illness comes from our thought life rather than the environment and genes.”

Dr. George Pransky states a similar thought in a different way in “The Relationship Handbook.”  “A change of heart is always preceded by a moment of truth. Just before change occurs, our thinking quiets down to allow a moment of inner silence. In this moment, we see life anew; our old thinking drops away and we can take a fresh look at our circumstances.” He goes on to say that, “Change of heart is the mechanism for saving and improving relationships. It enables a marriage with a painful history to achieve a permanent new footing overnight. A change of heart by one party, however slight, is usually enough to create a positive spiral in the evolution of your relationship.”

You can’t help but to “think about it” because that’s the way you are made, but you can catch your thought and change it so that you may have better relationships! Now that you have a glimpse of the impact that thoughts can have, you can choose to continue to think about whatever “it” is, or you can choose to change your thought. Both choices have consequences, positive or negative. 

The next time you notice (“catch”) yourself getting worked up, worried, fearful, angry, or having some other undesirable emotion, reaction, or behavior, identify the core thought. Then, consider letting go of that thought and finding a different thought that will take you a better place. Better yet, notice those situations that occur over and over in your work or personal life and identify the underlying thought that is eliciting an undesirable reaction. Then, think about another thought that would give you a different and positive perspective. Make it a point to shift to that thought the next time you are confronted with the same situation again. This is a proactive way to change the outcome by planning a new thought in advance. It will take effort and intentionality on your part, but it will be worth it in the long-run. 

People Over Process

Focus on people, not process. Simple, right? It may be simple to say, but it’s not easy to do. It makes sense. People get things done. But, I am a task- and process-oriented guy. I like formulas. I like to develop and follow a plan. I like action. I get things done. But, as a leader, I have to rely on other people to do those things because that’s what they are there to do. Besides, if what we’re doing is bigger than me, there’s no way I can do it all myself.  Sometimes I lose sight of the people, and focus on the process or the desired output. Can you relate? When I haven’t caught myself, this has resulted in frustration (mine and the team’s) and a discouraging environment.  If left unchecked, putting process over people can be devastating to a team and an organization. 

As leaders, we need other people to use their talents and abilities to do their part in contributing to the completion of the overall project or deliverable. Without them, we wouldn’t be a leader and wouldn’t be able to accomplish more than we could do on our own. I know this is basic and probably goes without saying, but sometimes we can get so caught up in getting things done that we forget to pay attention to our people. Maybe it’s just me, but I’m pretty sure it is not. 

So, how do we stay focused on the people? 

First, take time to be with them and get to know each team member. Take an interest in them. Understand what gets them excited and what frustrates them. Know their family situation and interests outside of work. And, help them to get to know more about you personally. Yes, this will take time! But, it will be worth it in the long run.

Second, pay attention to their body language so that you can pick up clues when something else might be going on in their life, between them and other team members, or even between you and them. Pull them aside, and gently and courageously check with them to see what’s there. If you’ve built trust, they will share. If you haven’t, they will most likely downplay it. But, if you let it go unnoticed or don’t address it, productivity is likely to suffer as a result of whatever might be distracting them.

Third, when you speak harshly or do something to offend them, deal with it immediately. State the offense. Admit you were wrong. Tell them you are sorry. Ask them to forgive you. Allow them to hold you accountable. Check to see if there is anything else you’ve done to offend them and ask for forgiveness for the things they mention. (“6-Step Apology” from Transformational Leadership)

Lastly, engage them in setting personal and professional objectives. Schedule brief (10 to 15 minutes) weekly one-on-one meetings to check in, see what they want to accomplish for the week, and ask how you can help. Make the meeting a priority every week, but stay focused and keep it short. It shows that you value them, care about them, and it reinforces that you are there to help them succeed.

These are just a few of the things you can do to show your team that you care about them as people and that you value them more than you do the process. When they are engaged, they are more likely to follow the process to get the results you desire. You may still have to guide them, but it will be much more rewarding for you and for them. Take some time now to reflect on how much you know about your team members and to what extent you focus on them or on process. If you are focusing more on the process than the people, consider what steps you can take to reverse your focus, starting with what’s described above. You’ll be glad you did and so will your team!

Are You A Present-Challenged Leader?

I am a planner by nature, so that means that I’m nearly always thinking about the next step, next thing, or something other than what’s in front of me. I often have trouble being “in the moment.” (And no, for me this is not ADHD!) A while back, my wife came up with a term for it – being “present-challenged.” While this shows up frequently in my marriage, which is not a good thing, I have become aware that it shows up in all areas of my life. 

Are you a present-challenged as a leader? To play off of the approach Jeff Foxworthy takes in a skit about knowing if someone is a redneck, here are some clues that you might be present-challenged: 

If you are always thinking about your position, response, or what you want to say when the people reporting to (following) you are talking…you may be present-challenged.

If you are thinking about what needs to be done next, not what’s being discussed, when you are in a meeting…you may be present-challenged.

If you are thinking about something totally unrelated to the discussion taking place between you and one or more people (some may call this day dreaming)…you may be present-challenged.

If, after a discussion with someone, you can’t remember many details about the conversation…you may be present-challenged.

If you are in a group gathering of some sort and you are thinking about all of the things you could be doing if you weren’t there…you may be present-challenged.

There are a number of books, or sections of books, that discuss the value of being in the moment – feeling peace and reducing stress, anxiety, and worry to name a few. In leadership, the importance of being fully present (physically, emotionally, and mentally) with those who follow you is critical. It shows that you value them and what they have to say. It gives you an opportunity to learn what’s going on, to keep a pulse on things. It allows you to hear tones and see body language that may be communicating something other than what’s being presented or shared so that you can get to the real heart of the matter.  Oh, and other people can often see when you’ve checked out, even if you think you’re doing a good job of hiding it. So, if they are seeing that you aren’t fully present, you lose credibility and some relational capital with them.

It’s simple to say “just stay in the moment,” but it’s not always easy to do, especially if you are present-challenged like I am. I’ve learned that I have to intentionally focus on the person or group that I am with in order to stay present to them.  I sometimes remind myself that if I am not going to be fully present, then I am wasting my time, as well as theirs. So, I need to be fully engaged to make the most of the time together. While these things don’t always work, they work more times than not. So, if you are present-challenged, commit to yourself to intentionally focus on being present in each instance. The more you do (over time), the less difficulty you will have staying in the moment.

The Power of Choice

One of the most important ingredients to healthy relationships is choice. We can choose how we want to show up in the relationship and how we want to respond to whatever confronts us or whoever is in front of us. It’s simple to choose, but not easy to follow through. It is often easier to blame and complain or worse, to let our anger or other feeling get the best of us than to choose something different.

In the leadership training program, Transformational Leadership, a “thinking model” is introduced. The underlying premise in the model is that our actions arise out of our feelings, which are determined by our thoughts, and if we change our thoughts, we will have different feelings leading to different actions. So, for example, when we are confronted in the office with someone who is in a bad mood or who snaps at us, we might normally think that they have a beef with us and then we go on to think that they have no right to be mad at us, so we respond sarcastically or with a direct counterattack as a way of reacting to the perceived offense. However, if, later in the day, we find out that this same person was up half the night at the emergency room with a sick child, we now understand the reason for what we perceived as their beef with us. So, if we turned back the clock with that knowledge and were faced with the same situation, we would think that she must be in a bad mood because she is tired, so we could respond by sympathizing with her about her child, which would keep the situation from escalating. The change in thought brings about a different feeling, resulting in a more favorable outcome (action).

Similarly, “The Relationship Handbook, the author, Dr. George S Pransky, shares success in helping couples to overcome challenges by choosing to their perception about the situation or each other. “It is the thought of incompatibility that creates the feeling of incompatibility.”  “A couple looks at their differences and feels bad about their marriage. It is not the differences that make them feel bad. It is the negative feeling that accompanies the act of looking at those differences. The practice of analysis, self-doubt and faultfinding muddies your view of relationships and makes frogs out of princes.”  In the 25th anniversary edition, he states “…the more you focus on shallow, unimportant issues, such as insecurities, habits, emotional reactions and irksome personality quirks, the more negative thoughts you’ll have. But the more you see the true nature of human beings, the more thoughts you’ll have about beauty and goodness.” His wife, Linda, shares “…it wasn’t George’s behavior that was bringing down our relationship; it was my own thinking about it as some critical impediment to our happiness as a couple.” For them, what changed was choosing to accept differences between them, which was in a large part, changing their thoughts about what confronted them when situations arose in their marriage.

It takes awareness in the moment (or soon afterwards) to be able to intentionally choose a different thought. As you work at it and prepare for it by deciding ahead of time to have a different thought (in those recurring situations), you will be on the path of a healthier and more fulfilling relationship, whether at work or at home. Simple to say, just not always easy to do, but powerful in the end!

Wholehearted Leadership

Last week, I attended the Global Leadership Summit at a satellite location near me. I couldn’t help but notice that all of the presenters talked about some aspect of the relationship side of leadership. Maybe that was the “filter” I was listening through since that’s my focus, but even so, it doesn’t negate the importance of a leader having relational strength. 

Bill Hybels closed his opening talk with a challenge for leaders to lead well, love well, and lead wholeheartedly. (Not too different from our goal through Abundant Life Coaching to help leaders “lead greatly, love deeply, and live freely.”) He asked if we are leading on the home front, as well as at work, which I took as his way of characterizing “wholeheartedly.” It seems like it should be simple for a leader to lead in the same way at home and at work, right? Simple to say, but not always easy to do.

What stands in the way of leading effectively in both places? Here’s a clue. In the past when I worked as a marketing consultant, Julaine (my wife) would often say that she wished I would treat her as well as I treated one of my clients. (For you, it might be people you work for or with.) You see, I paid attention to my clients and looked for how I could serve them and meet their needs. I asked questions and listened, engaging in two-way communication with them. I checked in with them regularly. I asked for feedback so that I could do a better job for them. I spent time with them. I cared about the outcome of our relationship and wanted it to grow. I didn’t always agree with them, but respected their position and took an interest in them, wanting to know about more than the work at hand. 

I think you get the point. I invested in the client relationship, but I wasn’t making a comparable level of investment in my marriage relationship. I was closer to wholehearted at work, but was more half-hearted at home. I wasn’t aware of how I was showing up at home until Julaine pointed it out, although if I was completely honest with myself, I knew. There was no reason I couldn’t have been wholehearted at home as well. I simply needed to choose to put the effort, time, and energy into my marriage. It’s a simple choice, but requires daily focus, intentionality, and doing the work. Let’s rise to Bill Hybel’s challenge and lead wholeheartedly at work and at home!

Formula of Success

I’m reading the book, Have a Nice Conflict by Tim Scudder, Michael Patterson, and Kent Mitchell.  It is a fable about a sales manager who is experiencing interpersonal challenges which are getting in the way of his career, the productivity and employee retention of his team. We journey with him as he works with a coach/mentor who helps him understand himself and others so that he can be in better relationships and more effectively eliminate or manage conflict.  The authors quote Theodore Roosevelt as saying “The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.”  Wow! So, if this is true, the best thing we can do for ourselves to ensure success it to get along with people. For me, that speaks to the importance of building relational strength in all areas of life.

How many times when you were growing up did you hear something like, “I just wish you’d get along with each other”? I heard it often growing up with four siblings. (Is it just me??) It seems like getting along with others should be simple, yet our experience shows it’s not easy. When I reflect on my career (particularly early on), there were many times when a supervisor would suggest that I could stand to improve my interpersonal skills (professional code for “get along with people”). I would then sign up for a training/development program that was designed to help me change some of my behaviors, which would help, at least for a time. I’ve learned since then, that there are many reasons for the way I interact with and respond to people – a learned response from training, reacting out of pride, responding to the other based on a similar situation in my past, and a whole lot more.  In order to be the best leader, husband, father, friend and “other” to someone else, we need to deal with things that are under the surface, not just those things we see. 

In this book, the characters talk about understanding the intent or motivations that are underneath the behaviors that we see in ourselves and others, then choosing to respond out of that knowledge. If I could turn back the clock, I can only imagine how knowing and applying this one principle might have altered my career trajectory and, more importantly, my relationships at work and at home. Even if knowing how to get along with people isn’t the “single ingredient” to success, it has to be near the top of the list! It is definitely one that can be developed, if we choose to dig below the surface and do the work.

Relationships - simple enough, right?

If you are reading this, you are in or have been in at least one relationship. We can't live in this world and not be in relationship. We are born into relationship by the mere fact that we have a mother and father, whether or not they were present when we were growing up. You could say that we are made to be in relationship. Simple, right? Well, maybe simple, just not easy.

To a large degree, what separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom are our mind, will, and emotions. Our thinking impacts our behavior. So, when two or more of us come together, there are bound to be differences that create conflict. It's just a natural outcome of being in relationship! 

If we want to make it less hard (and admit that some of us kind of like it when things are challenging), we need to start with changing our thinking. So, when you are confronted with a situation today where your wife, child, friend, co-worker, or boss get under your skin, will you allow yourself to get pulled in by letting your emotions (possibly anger) control you? Or, will you choose to take a step back to assess the situation, take a deep breath, pause, and gently ask them to help you understand what's going on? If you choose a different response like this, you'll be amazed at how simple it is to reduce conflict in relationships.

Why Simple, Not Easy?

Growth and change is usually difficult and messy, but often involves steps that are relatively simple, yet not always easy to do. Through this blog, we will share what we’ve learned from others and our experience with things that are simple, but not easy in leadership and marriage with the intent of providing insight and encouragement that will help to improve your relational strength.