Friday, March 22, 2013

Traditions: Keep, Ditch, or Reinvent Them?

“Without tradition, art is a flock of sheep without a shepherd. Without innovation, it is a corpse.”
I was home sick, lying on my couch, hopped up on cold medicine and for some reason glued to the TV waiting for a puff of smoke to come billowing out of the church chimney. I knew I was watching history but usually Days of our Lives or The Prices is Right takes precedence on a sick day agenda. I couldn't figure out why I was so interested in the Pope elections, but I was. Then one of the reporters used the word “tradition” and a light bulb went off -- or in this case, a white puff of smoke. 
tradition is a belief or behavior passed down within a group or society with symbolic meaning or special significance with origins in the past.  Traditions feel important to so many of us because they bring us comfort and safety.
But do traditions help us -- or do they hold us back?
When you look at Judaism or any other religion, it is steeped in tradition and it's often what people love most about their faith. I find comfort in the idea that no matter what synagogue I go to on a Friday night, the service will always be the same. With Passover in just a few days, I have been thinking a lot about what my parents’ traditions were, and what I will carry on with my own family.  My Seder, like many of yours, included telling the story of the Exodus from Egypt from the Maxwell coffee haggadahs, eating matzo, and me as the youngest singing the Four Questions. Now that I have a family of my own, I have the opportunity to reinvent what my Seder looks like and incorporate the traditions of my past, the new things I've learned along the way, and anything else my imagination can create.
But what about traditions at work?  How many times have you heard the answer, "It's how we've always done it."  Sometimes that statement is about tradition -- and other times, it’s just easier to do the same thing over and over again (remember: comfort and safety).  Tradition in the work place can hinder creativity and keep you stuck in the same old, same old.  Think of the program or project that you do year after year: is it still bringing in the same amount of people or raising the same amount of money?  Are you doing it because it's a tradition and that's how it's always been done?  I'm not suggesting that traditions are always good or bad but what I do think is that we should always be aware of why we are doing something year after year.  If you simply ask the question during the planning process, “are we doing this because it is truly a tradition or because it's how it's always been done”, you may avoid the pitfalls of getting stuck in a rut.

So, as we approach the Passover holiday, ask yourself: what traditions do you want to keep, let go of, or reinvent?

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

The Art of Asking For (and Getting) What You Need

A few years ago, I made sure I let my family know that I wanted to really, truly celebrate the upcoming Mother's Day. In my mind, I was expecting breakfast, served in bed, as a perfect start. The day arrived, and, like any other day, breakfast was sitting on the kitchen table. No delivery. No bed tray. Nothing special. Everyone was too busy with sports or homework, and I was disappointed that my special request wasn’t met – until I realized that I had never actually articulated my desires. I had “breakfast in bed” in my head – but the request never made it out of my mouth.

How many times do you make requests that end up in disappointments? Or even worse, you expect something that you never even asked for in the first place? It can be breakfast in bed, asking a co-worker for a copy of a document (over and over again), asking for a report and getting half of the information you needed, expecting others to know what to do without any specific guidance, or getting advice from your boss but not really the advice you needed to get the job done.

As the song tells us, “you can’t always get what you want” – but here are five good tips that can tip the odds in your favor:

1- An effective request requires a committed speaker and a committed listener. Always ask for what you want and how you want it, rather than assuming that it is obvious to others. Make your request clear, and make sure you get the full attention you need. Stop making casual requests in the hallway, while distracted looking at your screen, or “by the way” requests. How you ask for things will determine how you will receive it in return!

2- An effective request must include a clear and shared understanding of your standards for satisfaction.  Share your conditions of satisfaction in order to have your request fulfilled exactly as you expect it to be. Provide all the details you are thinking of, unless it is a situation in which you are flexible and open to surprises. When I asked my son to clean his room, without going into details, he did just that. Later I learned that “clean” meant one thing to me and something totally different to him (hiding things in the closet or under the desk). Yes, after a while, people learn routines and they know how you like your coffee or what you need in a daily report, but until then it is important to be as clear as you can.

3- An effective request must include a clear deadline and a realistic agreement with those being asked. Let others know the time frame to meet your request. Things such as "at your earliest convenience", "as soon as possible" or "promptly" are not precise enough. What seems obvious to you might not be to the other person.  It is always good to pre-establish checkpoints for long-term requests to make sure things are on track.

4- An effective request must include the right context and mood shared by all parties involved. Make sure the right mood is set for your request. It is a fact that the right conversation in the wrong mood is the wrong conversation. It is preferable to wait to make a request than to just make it when the context or the emotions are not the adequate ones. In this case is better to take a break - this could be a request in itself - and come back for a fresh new start later on.

5- An effective request needs that those you are involving are capable of delivering. Verify that those you are making the request from have the capacity to fulfill it the way you expect. Don't just assume; check and verify with them.  This is good practice. If you are asking someone with a broken leg, on crutches, to go to get you a coffee with lots of milk from the busy cafeteria down the block, and bring it to you in the next 5 minutes before your next meeting, you might end up getting a late and cold latte!

The following Mother’s Day, I knew better. Sitting around the table, paying full attention to each member of my family, and in the right mood, I said, "I have a request to make for Mother's Day. I want to have breakfast served in bed on a tray with a red rose, with fresh squeezed orange juice, 2 scrambled eggs, 1 wheat toast with fat free butter. I want it at 9:00 am". Then I checked that everyone's schedule would allow for it, that they understood what I wanted and why it was important to me, and that they were ok with it. Every year now I get my tray in bed, and unless I want something different, I don’t need to request it anymore. The rest of the day is filled with surprises, which is always good too.

I didn’t want to leave my requests for my special day to chance – and now, using these five tips, you don’t have to leave any day to chance.

Monday, March 11, 2013

How Our Words Can Make It or Break It

How Our Words Can Make It or Break It

Mark Twain once said “the difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.” I think his statement perfectly sums up a recent challenge I had with one particular word.

I was recently exploring the opportunity to partner with a colleague in a joint venture. A part of this offer was to sign a contract highlighting the expectations of our work together. As much as I saw a great mutual benefit in this opportunity, it was difficult for me to commit. I felt stuck in the decision making process and couldn’t identify exactly what was holding me back. It wasn’t until I had a discussion with my colleague that it became obvious to me what was the problem: the word “CONTRACT”. While this word is used in so many contexts, to my subconscious it meant LACK OF TRUST (we have each other’s commitment, why do we need a contract?) and a sense of BEING LOCKED IN that wasn’t very comfortable to me. 

But of course, only my subconscious mind was aware of that. In the meantime, my conscious brain was looking for different excuses of why this partnership was not really going to work out.  When I finally questioned my own emotions and admitted that I loved the potential business opportunity but not the idea of a “CONTRACT”, my colleague offered me an alternative: “What if we call it an “AGREEMENT” instead?”

WOW. I could literately feel my muscles relaxing and my whole body shifting to a spa mode, all because of this new word, “AGREEMENT”. Agreement (I am part of it by choice) vs. Contract (I am locked in). Granted, while the document would be the same, each word carried a different vibe and meaning to me that generated an emotion.

Emotions are caused by our thoughts, and our thoughts are caused by our beliefs and experiences supported by our values. For example, for those of us who grew up reading the Grimm Brothers books, the word “Stepmother” is equivalent to undeniable evil (Snow White, Hansel and Gretel, Cinderella and Rapunzel - these poor kids…Where was Child Protective Services back then?!) However, this is a terrible misrepresentation to the wonderful, most loving and caring stepmothers out there.  It is possible that our understanding of our perceived emotions is based on fiction or beliefs that hold no ground in present time or in our real lives.

I had once coached a finance executive (let’s call him Mike) in the pharmaceutical industry who was having a hard time obtaining job offers once he had relocated back to the States after many years working abroad. In efforts to fit right back in corporate American culture, he had forgotten the power of words and emotions. Here’s a typical example: Mike would get a job offer and become very excited. He would then thank the HR director and say that he would have his lawyer look into the offer and get back to her in a few days. To his dismay, within 24 hours, the HR director would call back, apologizing that the company had decided to hold back hiring for this position at this point in time or another politically correct answer that basically said: “really? You haven’t even started working here and you are already talking about lawyers??!”    I truly believe that Mike’s subconscious was trying to guide him to act in a way he felt would make him look even more professional and detailed oriented (as the company would have certainly liked him to be), however his words (and choice of tone) would be turning him in the wrong direction. When we talked more about the gap between his intentions and the actual impact, we were able to look at the language he was using and the emotions they would generate in different situations with different people and certain moments.

So how can we make sure we carefully use the right word instead of the almost right word? I guess this depends on the underline values we each hold and the emotional attachment that we place to words individually. I’ve learned that it is a good investment taking the time to understand what does a word truly mean to me and realize that it may hold a completely different meaning to someone else. Pausing to think, seeking for input from others and asking for clarification might be the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.