Earlier this month I visited a friend and former colleague. She’s a successful leader who recently relocated as part of a cross-country move. Like other thriving professionals, she is motivated, productive, collaborative, and fulfilled. But, if I had to name a single defining characteristic of her success, it would be her propensity to have fun. Through humor, play, and positive thinking she brings levity to the most mundane and miserable moments.
Now, “go have fun” may sound like a simplistic approach to professional success, but consider these points:
- People perform better when they are enjoying themselves.
- A playful perspective opens up possibilities and stimulates creativity.
- Happiness hormones increase memory function and motivation.
- Exuding joy energizes and inspires those around us.
- Workplace fun can reduce stress, fatigue, and boredom.
Here are some approaches to fun that have helped me or my clients be successful:
Switch it up
Novelty is fun. Changing the time, place, or way you do something can be enough to make it more enjoyable. Dim the lights, go to the office when it’s empty, sit on the floor, write in multi-colored pens.
If you’ve ever flown on Southwest Airlines, you’ve probably experienced the positive impact that a little humor can have in an industry that is remarkably serious and tense. Southwest’s flight crew demonstrates that being funny can make the passenger experience more enjoyable—without sacrificing safety or efficiency. In fact, research suggests humor contributes to stronger cultures, higher creativity, and better negotiations.
Break a sweat
Adding physical activity to your day is a healthy way to release endorphins and increase joy. Turning a sitting meeting into a walking one, taking a break to hit golf balls, or listening to your favorite podcast while riding a stationary bike are great ways to be active while working.
Make it a party
Even the most un-fun tasks can be livened up. Papers to collate? Make it a race. An event to debrief? Turn it into a casual dinner. Chores to do? Pick out music and have a “cleaning party”. (While never eliciting excitement from my kids, this approach conveyed my commitment to make cleaning suck less and helped them keep a good attitude.)
Spread the joy
The enjoyment and benefits of having fun can multiply when shared with others. In fact, research shows that teams who engage in play together may experience increased trust, a sense of solidarity, a friendlier work atmosphere, and higher employee commitment to work, among other impacts.
Keep in mind that this post is about intentionally including fun in your work for the purpose of enhancing your success. If your enjoyment efforts hinder your professional goals, you are probably having too much fun to consider it work.
How to thrive: Conduct a fun-audit. Identify an area of your professional life where you have the potential to be more engaged, happy, and productive. Incorporate one of the strategies above. And have fun!
How do you respond to the idea of doing nothing? Does it feel like a passive state to which you easily default, happily surrendering your efforts to do? Or does it feel like an effort, a list of actions that must be completed before you are able to not do? In either case, doing nothing is something that’s essential for your personal and professional wellbeing.
As a leadership development expert, I write a lot about the importance of pursuing, changing, stretching, communicating, growing, and other “ing” words that can sound like a lot of work. I stand by this perspective. I also recognize the need to pause . . . and . . . just . . . breathe.
While delivering valuable results, our pursuits of accomplishment and self-improvement can exhaust our mental, emotional, and physical reserves. Ironically, our efforts to be better can actually make us feel worse.
Sometimes the solution to a suffocating workload is simply to do less. We may be able to breathe more easily by expelling tasks, extending deadlines, or eliminating expectations.
For high achievers and others not inclined to lower the bar, process is the solution. Intentionally balancing expending energy with replenishing reserves helps sustain successful journeys as well as destinations. We can keep our reserves full by taking time to breathe.
In a matter of seconds, a few deep breaths can stabilize heart rates, reduce anxiety, and clear the mind. If you notice that your breathing is shallow or that you feel flustered, take a moment to recalibrate. Sit upright in a chair with your feet flat on the ground. Close your eyes and take three slow, deep breaths.
Incorporating weekly activities aimed at mental, physical, or spiritual wellbeing can provide a routine of fresh air. Whether it’s through quiet meditation, a stroll in the woods, or intense exercise, make time to regularly connect with something beyond your thoughts.
Occasionally we want or need extended respite. At least once a year, try to carve out a trip or “staycation” away from ongoing responsibilities. The energy you can gain from a few days of breathing freely will help you accomplish, grow, and thrive.
How to thrive: Consider where you can benefit from taking more literal and figurative breaths. Incorporate some practices into your schedule and find a friend, coach, mentor, or app to hold yourself accountable.
Despite the credence of 360 reviews and the value generally ascribed to leaders who ask for, accept, and/or incorporate feedback, many of us unconsciously avoid or consciously steer clear from soliciting new perspectives. Sure, hearing how others experience you can feel uncomfortable—but it also provides invaluable opportunities to learn and grow.
How to Ask For Feedback
If you’re afraid of asking for feedback, consider the absolute worst-case scenario: you’re doing something that’s destructive to you and/or others—and you don’t know it! Getting feedback doesn’t change reality, it just expands your knowledge of it, giving you the power to change.
Explain your goal
To help others provide actionable feedback, it can be helpful to explain what you’re looking for. Explaining your leadership development goals or areas of uncertainty may put others at ease as well as direct their comments to the areas you find most useful.
Consider the timing
While it may be more helpful and satisfying to receive feedback in the moment, make sure you ask for it at a time that works for the other party. Set up your sources with enough time to be thoughtful and thorough. Provide a few days for colleagues to gather thoughts about a specific event or project, and budget a few weeks or more for more routine performance or leadership assessments. If you are savvy enough to survey your customers, make sure you give them a month or so to fit you in.
Transparent feedback offers the advantage of context as well as the opportunity to seek and offer clarification. While I’m a proponent for this approach in certain situations, it’s not always ideal. Since anonymity provides safety for stakeholders to speak their truth without consequence, it can yield more direct constructive feedback that, while occasionally stinging, tells you what you really need to know.
How to Receive Feedback
Consider it an opportunity to grow
While it feels good to get positive feedback, resist the urge to greet yours as only a feel-good exercise. Instead, look for affirmations of your existing behavior and ideas for modifications.
Listen to understand
If you are fortunate enough to have someone give you direct feedback in a conversation, use the richness of the medium to your advantage. Resist the urge to respond immediately. Instead, give your full attention, seek clarification, and encourage sharing. If you believe offering your perspective would be helpful to the other party, consider doing so. (Hint: being defensive doesn’t help.)
Take responsibility for your actions
Since we judge ourselves by our intentions and others judge us by our actions, feedback can sometimes feel inaccurate. Keep in mind that, while you might not agree with everything you hear, it reflects someone else’s experience of you—it’s up to you to decide what to do with it.
Make sure to show appreciation for the time and effort you responders dedicated to the process. Express your commitment to doing something with what you learned. And encourage the feedback to keep flowing.
How to thrive: Consider whose feedback could be valuable to your current performance or professional development. Create a plan for soliciting and incorporating their thoughts.
It’s feedback season in COMM-253 at RIT. And every student in the professional communication class is giving and receiving. This is my favorite time of the semester. Seeing honest praise and constructive criticism circulated thoughtfully makes me feel like the facilitator of a gift exchange. While I too am contributing thoughts and impressions, I am the clearinghouse through which all written feedback gets sorted, reviewed, and distributed. And a few thoughts hit me recurrently:
- These young adults give great feedback.
- What a valuable opportunity for them.
- The rest of us need more opportunities to learn from others’ perspectives.
While most of us hold no shortage of desires for others to change, when it comes to providing useful data to assist them in doing so, we shut down. Likewise, we share a universal desire to perform well, but often avoid soliciting or receiving ideas from others. When we embrace the process and do it effectively, we all benefit.
How to Embrace the Process
Telling someone what you think of them comes with uncertainty. So does asking others to share their thoughts about us. When we commit to that fear, our anxiety builds.
Worrying about the “what if?” can shut down our efforts. What if my boss fires me for telling her what I think? What if my colleague tells me I’m terrible at my job?
The antidote to the “what if?” sabotage is “how does?” This can help us look at the current reality (rather than our narrative about it) and consider how to make it better. How does my boss’ current behavior affect the team? How does my current understanding limit me?
Of course, wanting to give and receive feedback is not the same as knowing how to do it. The five pointers below will help you be effective at giving feedback. Next month, I’ll provide tips to help you ask for and receive feedback.
How to Give Feedback
1) Make sure the time is right
If someone asks you for feedback, you know that’s a good time for them. But make sure it’s a good time for you. Asking for some time to organize your thoughts shows that you are taking the request seriously. If not, giving feedback in immediate response to someone’s request, make sure they are ready for it. Ideally, they are not distracted or emotionally charged. If you’re not sure if the time is right, ask.
2) Focus on future application
The point of feedback is to promote desired future behavior. Telling someone they did poorly or made a mistake is only helpful if there is something they can do differently next time.
3) Use “I” and “and”
Starting feedback with “You” is likely to trigger your recipient into fight or flight mode. Starting with “I” helps you avoid this reaction. It also gives you an opportunity to acknowledge your own contribution to the experience. I was confused by your presentation.
Using “and” instead of “but” can also make our feedback more effective. Think of this phrase: Your analytical skills are good, but. . . . The “but” seems to discount what comes before it (the positive feedback) and emphasize what follows (the constructive feedback).
4) Be nonverbally responsive
Just as our verbal language is important, so are the messages we send nonverbally. Show that you are invested in the feedback process by mirroring body language, making eye contact, and listening actively.
5) Follow through
Even in response to the best feedback, changing behavior is a process. Following up with affirmation or clarification demonstrates your commitment to the process and provides an opportunity to lend support.
We can only thrive in who we are and what we do if we keep on learning. Feedback allows us to continue to grow beyond a classroom, and take lessons from things we already do everyday. It also allows us all to be teachers, as well as students.
How to thrive: Consider who could benefit from hearing your affirmative or constructive feedback. What recent or upcoming opportunity provides an opportunity for you to reflect your experience?
Sometimes we find ourselves in situations we’d prefer to escape. And we know that we will meet unsavory tasks and painful scenes in the future. While we can’t avoid this, we can change our response.
In any situation, the internal story we tell ourselves about what is happening can make things worse (think: “Ugh, this is too difficult.”) or better (think: “Yay, this is a new challenge.”) As authors of these narratives, we have the opportunity to eliminate story lines that don’t serve us well and create ones that do.
We create stories everyday. It’s part of how we find meaning in the world around us. When negative stories prevail, they rob us of strength and agency. That’s what happened to Gary.
Gary was frustrated. His hands gripped the air as he described a recent meeting with his boss.
“She thinks I don’t know what I’m doing, so she gives me all of the boring work. Whenever she does give me a challenging project, she constantly checks on me, waiting for me to fail. Then, when I do need help, she doesn’t return my messages. She just wants me to screw up so she can say ‘I told you so’.”
Challenged by his coach to separate what was in fact happening from what he thought was happening, Gary was able identify that:
- Gary was assigned both simple and challenging projects.
- His boss offered assistance when Gary was doing something difficult.
- Sometimes his boss did not immediately return his phone calls.
With this awareness, Gary created a new narrative: “I get to work on simple projects as well as challenging ones. When I work on challenging ones, help is available. Sometimes I don’t get a response from my boss as quickly as I would like, so I will let her know that and ask what I can do to improve her response rate.”
Of course, creating a helpful story doesn’t necessarily mean it will displace the familiar narratives that don’t serve us well. Like all skills, owning our stories takes practice. But, it gets easier with each new chapter.
How to thrive: Challenge negative thinking by discerning what is fact and what is fiction. Create a narrative that elicits desirable thoughts and feelings.
Much to the disappointment of the ambitious, we can’t do it all. So, the best way to set ourselves up for success is to make sure we’re doing the right things at the right time. Being mindful and evaluating our behavior helps us decide what’s most important so we can invest our resources beneficially.
Setting priorities and expectations serves us best when it is a fluid process. Life is unpredictable, and in many situations strength is not as important as flexibility. Resolutions serve as an effective starting point for our journey; as that journey progresses, we can check in with ourselves, adjust to obstacles, and change the path to success.
Consider this example:
Melinda wanted to improve her time management. Specifically, she wanted to accomplish everything on each day’s to-do list. As the CEO, Melinda had a lot of responsibilities. She was also the go-to person for many employees, whose interruptions sometimes frustrated her since they impeded her productivity. Everything on Melinda’s to-do list was important and she couldn’t get it all done.
Melinda tried several time management strategies but her efforts to prioritize her time proved ineffective. When she examined her beliefs and thoughts about the situation, she reached these conclusions:
- Having an open door policy was essential to being the leader she wanted to be.
- Some of the tasks on her list could be done by other people, but she didn’t trust them.
- To get enough time for sleep, family and personal needs, she needed to limit her office time to 10 hours per day.
- The work she assigned to herself had to get done.
These insights helped Melinda identify that her priorities to be accessible to her team and have enough time outside of work required her to do less. She had to lower the expectation she had set for herself. Since the work was essential, Melinda determined that she would need to delegate more of it to her subordinates. She planned time to explain the new responsibilities to each effected staff member as well as a time to follow up with them and make adjustments if needed.
In the above situation, Melinda’s goals were achieved after she looked beyond changing behavior to the underlying thoughts and beliefs that drove it.
What you can do thrive: Ask, “What is most important right now?” at various times during the year. Adjust your goals when your priorities shift and make your actions meaningful.
Four weeks after celebrating the arrival of 2018, the novelty of another year seems to have worn away. Conversations about resolutions have dissipated, annual business strategies have rolled out and gym membership deals have expired. Yet, those of us who are committed to creating sustainable change know that it’s a process—one that takes more than a single month.
We all know the potential pitfalls of setting resolutions. We know when we set stretch goals that accomplishing them is certainly possible, but not necessarily likely. This might sound familiar: you define a desired outcome, start addressing it ambitiously, make some initial improvements, and then get disappointed when you don’t succeed. A little pain; no gain.
Changing ourselves is particularly hard when we work on modifying our habits rather than examining what drives them. If you want to create lasting improvements, you have to look beyond external behaviors and focus on your thinking and being. Here’s an example:
I like to have a tidy desk. Telling myself that I need to regularly clean it off was not an effective strategy (I tried it), nor was scheduling time on my calendar to do it (tried that too). Focusing on why I want it to be tidy and what that feels like, helped me get clear on how important (or not) this is to me. Then I could compare that to other activities to determine its priority. As it turns out, I’m more of a tidy-ish desk person.
Focusing on the thoughts and emotions that drive our behavior can help us sustain our personal and professional development goals. For many of you this will be a new way of thinking, for others this will simply serve as a reminder. Wherever you are in your growth journey, having support can be helpful. For that reason, I will be sharing a strategy for “Thriving in 2018” at the beginning of each month in 2018. I’ll share actionable ideas and describe approaches that have worked for some of my clients. If you subscribe to the Thrive Potential newsletter, you will see this information there. I will also post them on Thrive Potential’s Facebook page and on Linked In. My hope is that the tricks and insights I share will give you the boost you need to achieve all of your goals—in 2018 and beyond.
So, keep your eyes open and your head high. This is going to be a great year!
For the past five years, my fall has been punctuated by the Rochester Women’s Network Summit leadership conference. As chair or co-chair, I have helped lead a small group of volunteers to plan and deliver the annual event. And, while each year brings its own successes, challenges and lessons, this year’s proved especially meaningful.
As might be expected, the committee’s planning process starts out very orderly and relaxed. Coordinators and team members are named to each subcommittee, timelines are established with no true sense of consequence, and everyone gushes good ideas and enthusiasm.
By our tenth and final month as a team, the committee has lost some members to other professional priorities, as well as gained a few new faces. Event-day volunteers are solicited and every team member adds a new hat (or two) of responsibilities. We reach out with requests to other RWN leaders, attendees, and suppliers; with each delegated task, we stretch responsibility further away from any central command.
The best plans made in January have limited impact on an event hosted in October. Ultimately, a breakout theme is only as powerful as the facilitator and participants who show up. Timelines and scripts are only as effective as those who choose to follow them. Awards, only as inspirational as those who receive them. And an event only as successful as the team that manages it.
I was especially aware of the team’s capabilities this year because I was plagued by my own limitations. Having sprained my back the day before, I attended this year’s Summit in a sleepless, pain-filled, medicated haze. And, while I knew that my role as event chair could be assumed by others, it wasn’t until I (uncomfortably) sat back and observed that I appreciated how effective the team was. I marveled at each woman’s motivation, capability and personal ownership. Independent and self-determined, each had chosen to dedicate her time and energy to the event. Though nothing beyond their word bound them to that responsibility, they managed the day with unwavering commitment.
What I realized this year is that project planning and management get us prepared for the big day. But when it arrives, the event’s fate is in the hands of the people delivering and attending it. And while this sounds scary and difficult to manage—because it is scary and difficult to manage–it is also beautifully, imperfectly perfect. The Summit, after all, is a leadership conference. What better way to validate its purpose than by having it successfully delivered by a coalition of leaders.
The iMessage popped onto my screen on a Thursday morning.
“I got laid off. I’m at AT&T getting a new phone.”
“Are you kidding?” I asked, desperate for an alternative truth.
This was not our first rodeo, so I knew the initial steps:
- Get a personal cell phone
- Update friends and family
- File for unemployment
- Transfer health insurance
- Cancel the cleaning lady
- Start networking
Of course the logistics are easy to plan, and fairly easy to implement. Like most changes and challenges, a job loss can be confronted with a to-do list, but it takes more than checkmarks to turn it into an opportunity. The way we approach, plan, play, and collaborate defines how successfully we navigate major transitions.
Find a positive perspective
It was hard to resist looking at this layoff as the most difficult yet. This time around, I owned my own business. Kal’s job had provided the stability in our household. We had relied on his employer to supplement our health insurance and 401K. We had become accustomed to the reliability of bi-weekly deposits into our checking account. We had taken for granted our ability to easily get a low-interest loan.
But being a business owner also made some things easier. We had become accustomed to the financial uncertainty that defines entrepreneurship, so our threshold for money-related stress had become relatively high. And between clients, community leaders, collaborators, and networking acquaintances, I had grown an expansive network of colleagues who were now potential employment resources.
Thoughtfully consider options and decisions
In working and non-working worlds alike, things often move slower than we would like. We can let this drive us crazy (the easy but not very rewarding approach) or we can take a breath and embrace the mystery of progress.
If we open ourselves up to explore and ponder possibilities, we are likely to discover outcomes we hadn’t considered. Unless we are sure that the quickest solution will align with our long-term goals, we will likely benefit from avoiding the easy way out. Kal—who is not typically described as patient—diligently explored options before deciding on his ideal opportunity.
Almost anyone can find a replacement for what is lost or taken away. And while the temptation to jump back in before the impacts accumulate, the successful person who is between opportunities takes his time to explore and clarify what he really wants to do. This includes determining what success looks like and then evaluating potential opportunities based on those metrics. (Score another point for Kal.)
Enjoy the present
Carpe diem should be easy when you have 40-50 hours of discretionary time added to your schedule. Sadly, the stress of losing a job or other unwelcome transition tends to weigh us down rather than lighten us up. We may embody a sense of dire urgency to “get through this”, or feel depressed and do nothing.
When a loss of income is involved, it’s easy to use money as an excuse to avoid fun activities. It may require creativity, but there is almost always enough time and money to do something enjoyable. This summer, we had a great time with these “staycationing” activities: camping, museum visits, hikes, swimming, cooking, Netflix binge watching. If money isn’t the obstacle to fun, time probably is. It’s rare that someone clears our calendar for us, so it’s up to us to take the initiative
Ask for—and accept—help
As a connector-collaborator type, I am eager to help others find and pursue opportunities that may benefit them. I enjoy introducing synergistic professionals and potential friends. When I see a need, my natural inclination is to help address it.
But when it comes to asking others to do direct these types of efforts toward me (or my husband), I have to push myself to do it. Even with the confidence that I would happily do it for others, I find it unsettling to ask for introductions, meetings, feedback. But I did it. In Kal’s case, his offer came from someone in his network, not mine. But some of the people I connected him with helped him know this was the right path for him.
Thank you to everyone who helped through this transition. It was enlightening and character-building. It was also painful. But sometimes that’s how growth starts.
Like most states of well-being, happiness is underrated. While we know that reducing stress can prolong our lives, wanting happiness—perhaps the inverse of stress—can sound idealistic. “Sure”, we might think, “I’d love to be happy, but I’ve got work to do, people to manage, a family to support.”
Being happy elevates our enjoyment of daily life. It energizes us and makes us more resilient. Being happy is good for our general well-being and our professional success. People who appear happy are viewed as more confident, and happiness is a key predictor of performance at work. We look up to and choose to follow leaders who appear happy.
So why don’t we all make happiness a primary focus of our lives and then use its dividends to get our stuff done? Because it takes work to be happy—sometimes so much that we think getting there is impossible, or outside of our control.
The most important thing we need to do to create a happier life is to think of happiness not as a destination but as the vehicle to get there. We may not be heading toward the job or relationship or salary or body we hoped for, but instead of using our energy to be frustrated about what’s not happening, we can use it to figure out what else we can do to make things better. We still might not be able to change the destination, but at least we’ll have a chance. And, either way, the ride will be more enjoyable.
Being happy requires a constant state of mindfulness and attitude adjustment. So, even if we agree that happiness is worth the effort, it can still be difficult to achieve. (Gretchen Rubin documents an entire year of focused happiness work in her Happiness Project.)
I’ve never been happier in my professional life than I am now. Three simple approaches have helped me get in this position.
Turn it around
On most workdays I wake up excited to work with clients, students and colleagues. I settle into my desk with a hot cup of coffee or drive to a nearby destination, enjoying the chance to get out of the office. On some days happiness is elusive, not just at the beginning of the day, but at different points throughout, for example when a client reschedules or when I realize I failed to plan for a due date. As one who likes her independence (read: control), I have a habit of getting frustrated when external forces change the way I had planned to spend my time.
When I feel frustration or other undesirable emotions, I ask myself, “how do I want to be in this moment?” Then, I try to be it. Thankfully, my propensity for control is balanced by an affinity for spontaneity and pride in being able to make damn good lemonade out of those proverbial lemons. So, when I start to feel frustrated about losing time, I choose to be flexible and invigorated. Instead of focusing on what I’ve lost (a well-planned day, a block of writing time), I find something gained (some surprise discretionary time, an imminent accomplishment).
To turn it around, ask: How do I want to feel about this situation? What opportunity can I find to act this way?
If you’ve done work to develop enjoyable skills or helpful ways of thinking, you’ve experienced the link between growth and happiness. While it might sound exponentially difficult to grow capabilities while trying to grow happiness, it’s more of a two-for-one deal: you learn something new and that something new is useful and enjoyable. Motivation psychologist, Dr. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, hypothesizes that “The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times . . . The best moments usually occur if a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile.”
Ever feel stagnant and happy? Probably not. Ever feel restless—like you needed something new to make you feel happier? That’s what I’m talking about. Whether it’s a different career, an improved skill, or a new hobby, stretching ourselves is an important part of long-term happiness. Note the “long-term” part. Sometimes our initials attempts cause more angst than joy as we figure out what we want or how to be good at it. (When that happens, remember to “turn it around”.)
To refuel, ask: What area of my personal or professional life could use a happiness boost? What is important to me? How can I integrate something “difficult and worthwhile”?
Take a detour
Sometimes life sucks. And we can be sure that we will never be free from having to do things we don’t want to. For me, it’s paperwork. I’m “not a detail person”, which is to say I delegate as many forms and computation-based tasks as possible. I don’t enjoy having to organize my receipts (before delegating to my bookkeeper) or filling out government forms (before delegating to my accountant). When I “flip it”, I choose to be responsible and results-driven. I envision the beauty of a nearly empty inbox. Meh. I’d still rather do something else. So I do.
I’m not suggesting avoiding unsavory responsibilities—at least not entirely. I’m suggesting a distraction. While being mindful of our happiness levels is important, ruminating on unhappiness isn’t helpful. The point of being mindful is to find the opportunity to improve our situation.
When I don’t want to do rote paperwork but need to, I put on a podcast or Netflix show that doesn’t require much mindshare. I think of this as luxury time to myself, when I just happen to be doing some paperwork in the background. For more strategic tasks, I open a window, turn on ambient noise, embrace a fresh cup of coffee. Or I reward myself after completing something I don’t really want to do. Maybe I’ll take a walk. Or eat ice cream. (Or both!)
To take a detour, ask: What makes me happy? What could I integrate with this task or use to reward myself afterward?
If you’re naturally optimistic, or someone who has done a lot of self-development work, you’ve already figured out that happiness is always possible, and it’s up to you to make it happen. That’s great! Keep smiling! And be patient with those of us who may have to put in extra effort. Even better: share your secrets to happiness by commenting below.