I see you. I name you. There is space.

Getting ready for another Zoom meeting, my heart is a bit racy. My brain is a bit foggy. There is bound to be the continued tension of cognitive dissonance – task at hand, little mention of the current pandemic. It is not that we don’t address it on our calls. We ask how everyone is. We joke about what day is it. We are more gentle or short with one another than we might otherwise be depending on our capacity that day. But still, we are often making decisions, discussing projects, without fully acknowledging the weight of the crisis because it is beyond our ability to name and to measure. We are feeling the urgency of continuing to work, while finding our productivity muted.

I worry before the next call about whether what I have done is enough. I feel overwhelmed, tired, agitated.

Before I hop on the call, I take a few deep breaths and I acknowledge those feelings.

I see you worry. I see you fear. I see you sadness.

I see you.

I name you worry. I name you fear. I name you sadness.

I name you.

There is space for you worry. There is space for you fear. There is space for you sadness.

There is space.

Another deep breath in and slow exhale. I smile. I thank those negative emotions for reminding me to pay attention and to focus. I jump on the call hopefully able to share some grace with my clients, better able to navigate the cognitive dissonance.

Bird songs and bark

Some people find flow in their hobbies or work. Others, know the bliss of endorphins surging during a run. A few have a meditation practice they can call upon in times of stress. What about those of us leading who don’t have one of these tools in our toolbox? How can we switch from anger, despair, and anxiety into a mindset that helps us to focus, be present for others, and problem solve?

While there are quite a few tools, one of the most accessible to me is tapping into my senses.

Freshly ground nutmeg (holidays making eggnog with my Dad). Lilacs in bloom (my Mom’s garden). Raw cut green peppers (my Grandmother’s kitchen).

Birdsong outside my window. The chatter of the neighborhood children. A lovely voice singing scat.

The bark of a tree. A smooth pebble between my thumb and finger. A cool breeze in Summer.

Spring flowers. The outline of trees framed by a blue sky. The smile of my beloved.

A freshly picked wild strawberry. A cold beer. A sip of hot mint tea.

What sensory experiences help you breathe, smile, and slow down?

If like me, you could use a more accessible tool for those difficult days and moments, make a list of what sensory experiences bring you joy. Try to incorporate them more intentionally in your life.

When you are struggling, stop. Note what you smell, hear, see, feel and taste that makes you smile. Acknowledge it. Give it words, praise, or even just a nod.

These very simple reminders of our connection to joy and to the world help us to focus, be present for others, and unlock our ability to problem solve.

Breathing through the thrumming.

As individuals, friends, family members, co-workers, and leaders, each decision we make right now feels tense, filled with landmines of unanticipated consequences. Our chests feel tight, our bodies wound. The low hum of modern stress is now pulsing feverishly but still with the unsettling difficulty of directly naming and confronting it.

“Breathe, smile, and go slowly” –Thich Naht Hanh

It feels right now like it would be irresponsible to take a breath, smile, and slow down. Work is precarious. Others depend on us. Our household, organization, and community needs us driving forward.

“Breathe, smile, and go slowly” –Thich Naht Hanh

To slow down is to overlook a piece of important news, to miss an important deadline, to fail to protect our organization, our staff, our niche from the devastation that the pandemic and the economic fall out are causing.

“Breathe, smile, and go slowly” –Thich Naht Hanh

Breathe in.

Breathe out. Feel the deep breath opening up our tight chests.

Smile. Feel that very moment, that flicker, of relief from the pulsing.

Go slowly. Pick one thing to focus on right now. On a hard day, that may be as simple as making sure everyone is safe, fed,and has been heard. On a better day, we pick one priority on our to do list at a time to focus on. Set a timer. 20 minutes. Breathe, smile, re-assess.

As much as it may feel like we are taking precious time away from knowing what is unfolding in our quickly changing world, acting on our urgent to do lists, and planning for all contingencies…taking the time to breathe, smile, and slow down allows us to create the space for thoughtful decisions, for input from those around us, and for helping others bring their best selves to bear.

You’ve got this. It is precisely because of the uncertainty of this time, that we need all of the tools we can use to find our breath, our joy, and ourselves.

Evaluation is Reflection

Water Reflection Lake Mirror Sky Brightness

Those of us who are in love with the field of evaluation have a tendency to get lost in the jargon. We love to debate the finer points of approaches and provide graphics to illustrate the complexity of models. My clients, when faced with applying evaluation both for internal and external audiences, often feel overwhelmed by what they think are the expectations of proficiency in the complexities of evaluation.

At its foundation, evaluation is simply reflection. It is a systematic process for considering:

What of our endeavors have gone well?

What have not gone well?

What changes or next steps are needed?

Remembering this simplicity of evaluation is key when reporting to funders. It is easy for organization and program leads to panic when they notice that they are not meeting proposed targets. Evaluation though, is not a “gotcha.” It is not a pass/fail. Ultimately, what your staff, volunteers, funders, and community fundamentally want to know is what is working and how do you keep it working, what isn’t working and how do you tweak it.

Next time you are working on reporting around your program or initiative, start by asking yourself these simple questions. You can then look at addressing the answers via whatever evaluation model you find yourself using:

  1. What is going well? Why do we think it is going well? Can it be sustained? If so, how? If not, what are the barriers?
  2. What is not going well? Why do we think it is not going well? Can those barriers be addressed? If so, how? If not, why not?
  3. What is the big picture? Beyond the individuals who may not have followed through or the frustrations with a particular curriculum, or the missing data from an assessment instrument distribution method, what are the systemic issues? Can they be identified? Can they be explained? Can they be addressed?

Balance Requires Others

Goal setting, whether it is in strategic planning or for personal/professional growth requires stretch and limitations. Too much stretch and our goals are unrealistic. Too much emphasis on limitations, and we don’t reach.  Some organizational leaders view the limitations as key to safe steady leadership. Their goals tend to be more tactical, tangible. They are typically not inspirational, but they are doable. Other organizational leaders think big and leap without too much concern for limitations. Their goals are bold but not always attainable. The strongest organizations I have worked with have a mix of leaders who think big and act boldly and leaders who are cautious and plodding.

Depending on whether we typically view leaps as exciting or scary, determines how we react when those to whom we are accountable perceive of us as out of balance. For some of us,  it is easy to double down on our risk. For others it seems more comfortable to decide some goals are unattainable and to quit.  Very few of us take a step back and look at the data. When we do, we often find that goals and the pathway to attaining those goals can be modified. If we have been intentional in developing a diverse leadership team, we will have the potential middle way of modification voiced by our team.

I encourage you to think about a current goal that seems impossible. Is it possible to modify it, to chunk it, to create an alternative path to achieving it?  Who approaches goal setting differently than you? Who on your leadership team can you call upon to brainstorm alternatives? What data do you need to help make modifications to your goal or to your approach to attaining the goal? Schedule a walk-and-talk or other creative meeting setting to simply discuss the barriers and the opportunities with your team. What new steps emerge that make the goal less of a leap?


Off Balance

A few weeks ago, I was on fire. I had just re-launched our Smile Minded Smartbits blog with a series of posts. These posts were an outgrowth of a survey I conducted of non-profit and agency leaders I know and have worked with as a consultant and as a community volunteer. The blog was starting to pick up steam, particularly on LinkedIN with a growing readership that had a reach beyond those in my circles.

Work with clients was also picking up with new projects and strong conclusions to projects wrapping up. I had shifted more of my attention to how to build Smile Minded as a strong resource both online and face to face.

Then life hit. First, the time table on travel with my high school daughter to explore potential colleges moved up when there was an opening in my client schedule of meetings and deadlines. My daughter was sick during the trip so naturally the upper respiratory infection hit me shortly upon return. A few days later, my son lost a dear friend to suicide. My priorities shifted.

Many of us struggle with what we have come to term “work-life balance.” It was one of the many issues that kept those non-profit and agency leaders I interviewed up at night. It is one of the issues I am asked about by both beleaguered leaders who have worked in their respective field for decades and younger leaders who are just hitting their career stride. Whether you are a parent, married/partnered, or single. Whether you are in your 60’s or 20’s, you have faced at some point priorities that seem to compete with work. Work-life balance (and the debunking of it) are popular search terms in Google and there are hundreds of articles, Ted Talks, and books addressing language and models around work-life balance. Grappling with our competing priorities is a part of our modern world.

I lean toward envisioning life as a process of ebb and flow. In a few weeks, this blog will continue the exploration of collaboration, but we will also look more closely at the myth of balance and some ways to deepen our understanding of and align our lives to match what matters to us as individuals, organizations, and communities.

In the meantime, take a moment today to breath deeply and notice five things. One for each of your senses. What are you seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, and tasting right now? Be present for just this moment. In doing so, your next few moments may be just a tad easier.

The flipside of collaboration: when does groupthink lead to bad decisions?

How often have you been working with a team or with a collaborative of organizations and been surprised by the end of a meeting with the direction it has gone or that it hasn’t really gone anywhere? How often have you been in a team or collaborative and not felt heard? How often have you not heard others?

Humans have been working together to solve problems, create new things, and explore our surroundings for our entire history. So why is it such a struggle? Susan Cain in her book, Quiet: The Power of Introverts argues that in the last century or so, we have bought into a belief that a particular type of personality and way of working together is ideal. And part of that ideal is a belief in collaboration above individual contributions.

Shawn Achor (who’s thought leadership we have explored in a previous post) in his second book: Before Happiness, suggests that the first person to speak generally sets the tone. Susan Cain, concurs and argues that when groups work together, we tend to fall into what she terms the New Groupthink.”The New Groupthink elevates teamwork above all else. It insists that creativity and intellectual achievement come from a gregarious place.” For a quick introduction to this concept, check out this 2012 NYT Sunday Review by Susan Cain.

Cain argues that this New Groupthink is subject to the same failures some psychologists have noted in group brainstorming including social loafing, production blocking, and evaluation apprehension.  Production blocking is similar to Shawn Achor’s argument that the first person who speaks sets the tone. Only one person can talk at a time. Social loafing notes our tendency to abdicate our responsibility when others speak up, and of course most of us fear looking foolish in front of others which some psychologists term evaluation apprehension.

In a group setting where decisions are being made, we have a tendency to follow the answers of others. Gregory Berns at Emory University updated a classic study of groupthink using fMRI scanner to study subjects’ brains when they conformed to or broke with group opinion. They found that when we solve problems on our own, we use the parts of our brain that help us to solve that problem (in this experiment, occipital and parietal cortices for visual and spatial reasoning and the frontal cortex for decision making).

When we solve problems in groups and collectively come to the wrong answer, one would think that our frontal cortex (decision making) would light up more than our occipital and parietal coritices if we were consciously just going along with the wrong answer. What they found though was that our occipital and parietal cortices lit up as well. In other words, our perception of the problem changes to fit the group’s perception. This happens without us consciously deciding to go along with everyone else. Our very understanding of the issue and the solution change based on what one or more vocal participants think.

Susan Cain sums up the study by saying, “Most of Berns’ volunteers reported having gone along with the group because “they thought that they had arrived serendipitously at the same correct answer.” They were utterly blind, in other words, to how much their peers had influenced them.”

Bob Frick, in a Washington Post column used the term herding to describe this phenomenon.

This is even more concerning to those of us who work with teams and collaboratives in guiding their decision making. Not only are there conflict, territorialism, and trust issues in collaboration, but even when a group comes to the same conclusion, that conclusion may be faulty.

How do we hedge against such a threat to our collective decision making? Susan Cain provides a partial answer. She explores through multiple examples the importance of deliberate practice and personal space. I highly recommend reading her book for more details (particularly chapter 3).

One of her recommendations addresses the use of online collaboration. She provides some compelling arguments that the typical pitfalls of the New Groupthink are diminished when teams work in their own individual personal spaces but connect via technology.

“The evidence from science suggests that business people must be insane to use brainstorming groups,” writes the organizational psychologist Adrian Furnham. “If you have talented and motivated people, they should be encouraged to work alone when creativity or efficiency is the highest priority.” The one exception to this is online brainstorming. Groups brainstorming electronically, when properly managed, not only do better than individuals, research shows; the larger the group, the better it performs.” She extends this argument to include positing that academic researchers working from different locations collaborating electronically, produce more influential research than those who work alone or who collaborate face-to-face.

These arguments are intriguing in looking at how teams within an organization and organizations within a collaborative may best reduce the impact of the New Groupthink while leveraging the impact of collaboration.

When I work with organizations on strategic planning processes, I typically begin with interviews of stakeholders. I send the questions ahead of time. This provides individuals a chance to think through their answers before meeting with me either face to face or over the phone. Introverts have a chance to reflect and the interviews give me a chance to better understand the organization as a whole before having the stakeholders in a room together where group dynamics have an impact. I am able to learn not just about the traditional strengths, barriers, and opportunities for the organization, but also about the personalities, potential areas of conflict, and emerging priorities.

As a key part of a strategic planning process is not just the decisions made, but also the sense of ownership of those decisions, I take my clients through a mission, vision, and values statement process in a half-day retreat. Ideally, these retreats include Board, staff, and a sometimes a few outside stakeholders. Whether they have mission, vision, and values statements or will use those statements, the process of working together to identify “who we are”, “who we want to be”, and “what we value” provides a foundation for making shared decisions around priorities, goals, metrics, etc. for their strategic plan.

I provide individual reflection time and paired conversations in which board and staff listen to one other person deeply on their thoughts before moving into small and whole group work. This time of bonding and creating a shared sense of purpose is important. It may well be subject to the vagaries of groupthink, but the organization also benefits from the sense of oneness, ownership of the work, and kinship with one another.

Based on the current discussion of groupthink and the impact on decision making, I am considering shifting how I approach the second half day retreat where stakeholders make strategic decisions around goals, objectives, metrics, etc to develop a process that provides more online input either before, during, or after a face-to-face retreat.

A colleague of mine who works with a wide variety of stakeholders from artists, to non-profit organizations, to government and business leaders has developed an interesting hybrid method for small meetings. While facilitating the discussion, she keeps a a Google doc open for note taking. She invites the members of the meeting to join her in the note taking. This provides introverts a chance to add content without speaking. It also provides a shared method of documentation that may hedge against social loafing, production blocking, and evaluation apprehension.

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In future posts, I will update you on pilots I conduct of hybrid models of face-to-face and online collaboration. In the meantime, join us for a discussion around strategies to address the barriers of  groupthink in teams and collaboratives on LinkedIN:  Discussion Group

Next week, we will explore the difficulties humans have with defining “us” and “them” and its impact on collaboration with the provocative question:  When are we just pretending to collaborate?

When Do I Matter, You Matter, and We Matter? Exploring the Pitfalls of Collaboration

As non-profit, team, and community leaders, you have been encouraged to collaborate. In fact, most of us take pride in our organizational commitment to and community culture of collaboration. And there are no shortage of articles from Forbes to Stanford  Social Innovation Review to Harvard Business Review extolling the virtues and providing guidance on collaboration.

When I asked over 60 non-profit, philanthropic, and agency leaders about what keeps them up at the night, some answered with comments like:

“sometimes not feeling confident enough to speak up when I should”

When I asked what gets them up in the morning, many answered their teams, working with collaborative partners, and the community. 

But, are we collaborating? And is collaboration always the right pathway? Who is best positioned to lead in collaboration?

We will be exploring these questions and more in the next few weeks with posts such as:

— When are we just pretending to collaborate?
— The Flipside of collaboration: When does group think lead to bad decisions?
— When are introverts ideal leaders?

In anticipation of the following series, this week, take a few moments to think about your experiences with collaboration and jot down your thoughts either in a journal or download this Collaboration Reflection Worksheet:

  1. What collaborations or coalitions have you participated in recently?
  2. What has gone well?
  3. What were some of the challenges?
  4. What was your or your organization’s role in the collaboration?
  5. What were the outcomes of the collaboration?

In the coming weeks, we will explore when and how to best leverage collaboration.

Choosing What Matters

In previous posts, we explored the mindset needed to choose what matters and questions that will help in shifting that mindset. Those steps are important, but once we have identified our opportunities, how do we decide?

Extend your questions to include:

  1. What are my choices?
  2. What evidence do I need to determine which choice to make?

Now ask yourself: How can I collect that evidence?

Some possible options include:

Collecting Evidence for Day-to-Day Decisions

To get a better sense of what kind of data to collect for the questions we brainstorm, let’s revisit the day-to-day staffing issue from last week. My client was frustrated with Sally’s performance. She had shifted to more positively worded questions where the questions she had brainstormed were encouraging her to explore the project needs, Sally’s needs and strengths, and match the two.  What evidence does she need to make that choice?

When you look at the questions you brainstormed for a smaller decision you need to make, take your time. Set your questions aside for a few hours or a day. Then begin looking at what data you need. Being in a positive frame of mind is important, so when you feel yourself getting frustrated, set it aside and revisit later.

Collecting Evidence for Larger Decisions

What if you are looking more inwardly though and need to collect data around the larger question: “Is it bad that I can’t think of 3 things that get me up the morning?” These larger questions may include more introspection. Here is where your emotions are important. As we explored a few Mondays ago, emotions are not decisions but rather are evidence for decisions.

Observation of yourself and others at meetings, during tasks, or on your way to work, become data that you can use to help you make a decision about your opportunities. In particular, take time to observe your emotional state and what precedes it. Are you calm and in the flow? What were you doing when you felt that way? Are you anxious or angry? What were you doing when you felt that way?

As you reflect on the data, the answers to your questions may not be immediate. You may want to add the following questions as you review the data you collected:

  • What matters to you personally?
  • What matters to your family?
  • What matters to your friends?
  • What matters to your larger community?
  • What aspects of your current situation can be changed if approached from a positive, inquiry lens?
  • What aspects of your current situation seem intractable or are outside of your ability to influence?
  • What opportunities do you see for yourself and others?
  • What investments do you need to make to leverage those opportunities?
  • What risks are involved in leveraging those opportunities?
  • Are you ready to address change (either within current or new role, organization, or industry)? If not, what do you need to do to be ready for change?

Determining What Matters Data Collection Handouts


Observation Form

Risks and Benefits Worksheet

Question and Evidence Brainstorming Worksheet

Determining what matters is a process. Enjoy the journey. Over the next few Mondays we will be exploring more issues around what matters including topics around:

Determining what matters

Getting what matters done

Felling like I matter, you matter, we matter

Funding what matters


Getting Unstuck: The Power of Questions

Last week we explored that place where all of us find ourselves from time to time. Stuck. Have you found yourself stuck in a mindset; reviewing the same insufficient options; worried or scared you will make the wrong decision? We have all felt stuck from time to time. When we are stuck, we have a tendency to point negative energy inward, outward, or both.

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Mariliee Adams suggests in Change Your Questions Change Your Life, approaching issues from an inquiry mindset. In other words, rather than judging others or ourselves, what questions can we ask that help us to see the learning opportunities in even a bad situation? Marilee Adams suggestions we avoid questions like:

And ask questions more like:

These questions can be used for both small and large decisions. For a day-to-day staffing issue, the difference may look like this:

Initial Reaction

  1. What the hell is happening right now with Sally?
  2. Why is it so hard to communicate with her?
  3. How am I going to get her to follow through on the tasks I assigned?
  4. Is she purposely trying to sabotage the project?
  5. Am I just not able to give direction?
  6. Is it possible that I am not ready to manage someone else?
  7. Do I have what it takes for this project?
  8. Does Sally know something I don’t know?

Take a look at the list of questions above, how does the list make you feel? Notice your physiological reaction. Is your breath quick? Is your chest tight? How is your posture when you are reading those questions?

More Positively Worded Questions

  1. What assumptions am I making about Sally and my relationship?
  2. What is Sally feeling or thinking?
  3. What am I feeling or thinking?
  4. What are the goals of the project?
  5. What are the tasks that would help us meet those goals?
  6. Are there other ways to approach the project?
  7. What are Sally’s strengths?
  8. How can I match Sally’s strengths to the goals and tasks of the project?

How does the second list make you feel? Is your breath slower, Is your heart rate slower? How is your posture?

So how about for the quandary posed last week: Is it bad that I can’t think of three things that get me up in the morning professionally? If this question resonated with you, you are not alone. If you wonder if you picked the right field, the right organization, the right role, you are not alone.

Questions to ask to shift your mindset

For my client who faced the double whammy of feeling overwhelmed by the barriers to meeting client needs and undervalued by staff, the questions he asked made a big difference in his ability to see ways to address the issues in front of him and explore other possible ventures. He asked himself questions such as:

This is where emotions are evidence. If you do not feel inspired and motivated by the questions you brainstorm to solve the issue at hand but you are inspired and motivated by the questions that have you looking beyond your current position, you may be ready for a change.

For my other client, where anger and battle were her go-to emotions, she asked herself:


Think of a situation you are facing right now at work. It can be large or small. Take 10 minutes this week to pour yourself a cup of your favorite beverage. Make a list of questions you have about that situation.

What Matters Question Worksheet

Now mark those questions as positive or negative. If you noticed that you have mostly (or completely) negatively worded questions, look above for some of Marilee Adam’s inspired learner-based questions to add more positively word questions to your list.

For the next week, practice asking questions. Set them aside and revisit them. When you are satisfied that they are helpful questions, take some time to answer them. Next Monday, we will add observation and data collection to help us get unstuck and determine What Matters.