At ConantLeadership, we’re committed to lifelong learning and continuous improvement. In service to your leadership growth, each month we curate the Leadership That Works Newsletter, a digest of timely resources from around the web. We prepare this resource in order to:
- Share actionable advice from top leadership luminaries
- Celebrate a range of viewpoints worthy of consideration (inclusion is not an endorsement)
- Contextualize workplace trends through a leadership lens
- Illuminate cultural recalibrations in the world of work
- Support your personal development in life, leadership, and beyond
In this month’s Leadership That Works Newsletter – Gratitude is more than a platitude; don’t call them ‘soft skills’; how to ‘invite’ people back to the office; the power of a ‘clearness committee’; understanding ‘burnout,’ and more. As always, we’re sharing the content from our newsletter here on our blog in case you’re not subscribed to our mailing list. If you find these links enriching, you can sign up to receive our newsletter right here.
Gratitude Is More than a Platitude
“Positive attention is 30 times more powerful than negative attention,” says this Harvard Business Review article that urges leaders to “play to the strengths of both individuals and the collective,” in order to accelerate growth. One of the most powerful ways to celebrate strengths is to incorporate the practice of writing “notes of appreciation.” Effective notes should be written with a step-above attention to detail, replete with “specificity,” and “real-world examples that clearly explain the attribute or action that is appreciated and why it’s appreciated.”
It may be tempting to downplay gratitude letters as a nice but empty gesture—one that delivers fuzzy feelings but has limited impact. But the authors have observed that thank-you notes, when executed properly, can transcend platitudes and pack a potent punch.
The benefits work on three levels:
1.”They help people see their strengths,” which allows leaders to “explicitly communicate that those strengths are valuable.”
2. “They focus our attention on what’s working,” which helps people’s brains continue to “filter for their strengths” and replicate the good behavior.
3. And finally, “they signal to people that they matter,” which strengthens relationships and lifts work out of the trenches—from a purely tactical pursuit to something more meaningful. Get the full story here.
For more on this –
- An array of experts weigh in on the power of gratitude in this recent coverage in The Washington Post
- Etiquette experts interviewed by the New York Times say thank-you notes are more powerful than ever
- Learn how ConantLeadership Founder Doug Conant wrote thousands of thank-you notes to transform the culture at Campbell Soup Company during his tenure as CEO
- Explore our post from 2018 on the ‘gratitude mindset’
Is ‘Burnout’ a Cultural Problem?
As the pandemic upended life across the globe, ‘burnout’ came to the forefront as humans across professions struggled to juggle competing demands in every area of their lives. In the workplace, burnout is often discussed as a mental health issue, akin to anxiety or depression, but this Men’s Health article says the phenomenon of a mentally depleted population (over 80% of those polled report symptoms) may be the “inevitable” result of a grind-obsessed culture that “misjudges the purpose and value of work.” It’s easy to point to the pandemic as the primary stressor, but even as COVID-19 concerns subside, a litany of new uncertainties, expectations, and crises pop up in its place: Companies “are trying to transform their business to meet new demands—asking people who are already burned out to be creative, collaborative, and entrepreneurial when they feel least able to do it.” There is no simple fix; the issue cannot be solved “with a holiday or a few well-aimed life hacks.” What is needed is better understanding of the underlying conditions that create pervasive burnout: “Part of the problem is the modern culture of trying to optimize every single area for maximum productivity,” and which treats, “work as religion.” But, “work cannot possibly fulfill us in all the ways we have come to expect,” and experts suggest learning to “put buffers in place,” to protect yourself from burnout including “taking rest seriously,” “scheduling downtime,” and “building a network of people in a similar position to you.” Get the full story here.
Stop Calling Them ‘Soft Skills’
Many leadership job listings advertise a need for empathy, good communication, emotional intelligence, and other “non-technical intangibles,” explains this piece in Chief, so why are these essential traits denigrated as “soft skills?” The terminology “dates back to the US military in the 1960s, when ‘soft skills’ entailed anything that did not require the use of machinery,” and has since been adopted by the corporate world and “misapplied” with a broad brush to refer to every competency that nests under the umbrella of “interpersonal skills.” Rather than framing people-prowess as a nice-to-have bonus, recruitment experts say we should “throw out the term ‘soft skills'” and instead position these skills as “core competencies” which are essential to effective leadership. This requires deepening our cultural understanding of these attributes, talking about them as “strong skills,” and developing training to teach them to managers, rather than assuming they are innate. Get the full story here.
For more on this –
- Read this Fast Company piece on how to train ‘soft skills,’ and then explore Doug Conant’s explanation of why “the soft stuff is the hard stuff.”
For Hybrid Work, ‘Inviting’ Beats ‘Demanding’
In the shadow of the pandemic, which forced a large portion of the workforce to operate remotely, many companies now want employees back in the office. As hybrid work becomes more common, and some people are returning to offices at least part-time, leaders are continuously managing the tension between what they want and what their teams prefer. This piece in Entrepreneur, which puts the onus on the employer to make the office an enticing proposition, explains: “61% of remote workers say they work from home because they prefer to,” and “71% said they were open to finding another job in the oncoming year,” if their organizations do not offer sufficient flexibility. Rather than demanding knowledge workers return, which may “drive quit rates and turn off new talent,” it’s wise to “invite” colleagues back—and to make the office “an inviting place where people want and need to be.” To be more inviting, focus on “social engagements,” “build an inviting space” conducive to collaboration, increase opportunities for training, and provide “clear expectations.” Get the full story here.
Psychological Safety Requires Discomfort
“Psychological safety is necessary in any workplace. Without an environment where candor is welcome, it’s difficult for a team to perform at their best,” write Amy Edmondson and Kim Scott in this Fast Company post. In order to create psychologically safe conditions, leaders must first understand that doing so, “isn’t about being comfortable all the time. It’s about embracing the discomfort.” But leaders also shouldn’t conflate the “radical candor” that psychological safety requires with “brutal honesty.” Radical candor isn’t about releasing an unfiltered barrage of criticism, it’s “about caring personally and challenging directly,” and while it doesn’t guarantee consensus or “an environment where no one hurts anyone’s feelings,” it is uniquely conducive to productive “open dialogue.” So how can leaders strike the right balance—how to get uncomfortable enough to facilitate change while not going so far as to create rancor? The authors says there are 4 key steps to creating an environment “where people feel safe to tell you what they really think, rather than what they think you want to hear.” The steps are: “Solicit criticism,” “Give praise,” “Give criticism,” and “Gauge your feedback.” Get the full story here.
For more on this –
- Check out our 2021 BLUEPRINT Summit Discussion with Amy Edmondson, the scholar and author who coined the term “psychological safety.”
A ‘Clearness Committee’ May Help with Tough Decisions
Leaders regularly face high-stakes decisions, but some conundrums are uniquely perplexing. This strategy & business piece by Theodore Kinni offers practical advice for leaders wrestling with extremely challenging circumstances, those who are weighing decisions with profound implications for employees and their families, or who are navigating issues that bump up against ethical quagmires related to social justice, the environment, or political discord. Kinni explains, “the mantle of power and authority,” can make some leaders reluctant to ask for help for fear of appearing “indecisive or uniformed,” and “there is the issue of trust,” which presents “even in the most collaborative corporate cultures,” because close confidants may have their own agendas which can skew their advice, consciously or unconsciously. Kinni suggests the concept of a “clearness committee” as a powerful tool for circumventing these common fears and facilitating introspection. Clearness committees are rooted in Quaker precepts which teach that “all people have within themselves meaningful resources for finding their way.” A proper clearness committee is composed of five or six people who devote their full attention to your problem for a few hours, asking clarifying questions without judgement, and without prescribing specific action. The rule is: “no fixing, no saving, no advising, and no correcting,” only careful listening and questioning with the goal of helping the leader access their own inner guidance. Get the full story here.
In Praise of the ‘Work Friend’
Lynda Gratton, Management Professor at London Business School, shares a paradox in her MITSloan Management Review piece on work friendships: “People often feel isolated, both in general and at work,” yet, “they are wary of making the workplace relationships that could reduce their loneliness.” This is particularly concerning in chaotic times, because, “one of the crucial elements of personal resilience is friendship,” and Gallup research has found that strong friendships are one of the top indicators of employee engagement. In short, “friendships at work matter.” So why are people leery of building friendships in the workplace? Research shows many are dubious of colleagues and believe workplace connections will be “superficial,” or riddled with ulterior motives and distrust. And power differentials, like between a manager and a subordinate, “create complications,” and can make interactions feel transactional. To combat this, Gratton offers two strategies: One, “test for trustworthiness,” by observing behavior, and two, “start with mutual sharing,” building a friendship safely “over time based on incremental actions that are frequent and informal.” Get the full story here.
Do You Need a ‘Reverse Mentor?’
“Traditional notions of mentoring are top down: senior leaders guiding lower-level staff,” writes Nicole Kobie in this BBC Worklife article, “but the tides are changing—and younger workers are now teaching up.” While it’s common knowledge that established leaders have valuable accrued expertise to impart to younger generations, it’s becoming more widely understood that the reverse is also true—junior workers, who are savvy in unique areas, also have skills to teach their more senior counterparts. That’s where “reverse mentoring” comes in: The practice “pairs staff across generational divides, encouraging a bottom-up flow of information, alongside the traditional top-down approach.” Reverse mentoring, originally conceived to address generational gaps in technology use, can now help with other “cultural issues and work trends,” and “can help expand diversity of thinking in the workplace.” Although “reverse mentorship may have evolved to address complex modern work challenges,” at its heart, “it’s really about old-fashioned ideas of mutual understanding and respect.” Get the full story here.
Insights & Resources from ConantLeadership
‘Crisis Drives Change’—Doug Conant & Abercrombie & Fitch CEO Fran Horowitz on the Future of Work
In this new blog, learn Doug Conant and Fran Horowitz’s three levers of culture transformation and three levers of employee engagement for today’s fraught landscape.
‘Be a Force for Growth & a Force for Good’—Celebrating John Smale’s Timeless Leadership
In this recent blog, 3 top leadership experts share insights from the leadership legacy of John Smale, legendary former CEO of Procter & Gamble and former chairman of General Motors.
The Power of Asking ‘How Can I Help?’
In this recent blog, learn why the four simple words, ‘How can I help?’ can immediately kickstart a transformation in workplace dynamics.
October’s Leadership That Works Newsletter
In last month’s newsletter: Understanding ‘the great breakup,’ mastering the art of ‘micro-understanding,’ creating an ‘ownership mentality,’ and more.
About the Author: Amy Federman is ConantLeadership’s Director of Content and Editor in Chief, and co-author with Doug Conant of the WSJ bestseller, The Blueprint.
(Cover photo by Luis Tosta on Unsplash)