Cohesion in happiness

The sticking together of particles of the same substance or how to build a team spirit driven by the pursuit of happiness

“Making others happy is not a question of sacrificing our own happiness. Trying to make others happy, even when we do not always succeed, is a source of great satisfaction.”

(Quote from His Holiness, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama in facebook 17.August. 2018)

Serving the purpose of happiness will be a wise inspiration to get better at things. Whether you are working in a non-profit organization for the sake of humanity, nature, or a greater good; or maybe you are a politician or a leader in the public sector. Maybe you work for a profit organization and your job relates to a product or to servicing people build things, teach their kids or protect them from malicious software. Take a second and please think with me:

Is the ultimate purpose of the job you do to make someone else happy?

In my journey of transformational leadership, I have witnessed many times how pursuing and experiencing the happiness of others became the most powerful motivation and source of a personal sense of achievement and satisfaction that an individual and a team can experience.

Generally, when we work, we work with people somehow. There is great pressure for us to get along, meet expectations, communicate clearly and properly, meet quotas, SLAs, create value, you name it. One thing we sometimes tend to forget is that, in all these endeavors, we are dealing with people. No matter if it is our clients, our bosses, our CEOs or team members. We are working with people who, just as we do, want recognition, attention, and satisfaction in their day. Most of all, we all look for a sense for meaning, appreciation, and engagement in our work somehow.

Let me ask you to try this little exercise:

Find a quiet moment and try to think about – or much better -, remember, the following situations:

  • A team lead witnessing one of their team members rocking the presentation to the board of directors.
  • The e-mail from a client after weeks of an ongoing issue saying “thank you” in uppercase.
  • The slack message from your colleague featuring happy dancers to let you know something you suggested worked.
  • The laughter in the room (or video call) celebrating a joke in a well deserved break after a difficult meeting.
  • Receiving the news that a new colleague is soon starting.
  • Receiving notes from your peers after your promotion has been communicated.
  • Silently enjoying the confidence of one of your team members in a client meeting that they just 3 weeks ago didn’t think they had in them.
  • A team rocking a project for the sake of others?
  • Listening to someone in power telling how your ideas contributed to the strategy?
  • Saying thank you to someone who made your day or helped you with something important.
  • Appreciating words after a hard week.
  • Covering for your colleagues so that they can have time off.

Can you write a few more down?

What do these things make you feel? Can you relate to one or more of them?

Our individual joy and satisfaction at work are mostly related to having a meaningful purpose, even when we are not literally serving a purpose to humanity or the universe, our work – any work – mostly has the commonality that at some point it makes someone else happy or at least, gives someone satisfaction.

Your clients are people. People who depend sometimes on your product or services to complete their tasks or jobs or projects to the satisfaction of their own stakeholders. When you solve problems for them, enable them to succeed, you make people happy, as they can deliver and thrive in this achievement. When we as a team understand the simple principle of acknowledging that our external and internal stakeholders are not only “opinions” “interests” “resources” “decision-makers” “contracting entities” but foremost people – our ability to reframe our purpose at work increases. How about thinking about the situations above? Could we believe then, that pursuing happiness for others could make us happy too?

But is that enough to make us all happy?

Working as a team and being one is about cohesion. Cohesion is a wonderful word – ask Google:

More than the general definition of cohesion, my favorite one is the one from Physics: “the sticking together of particles of the same substance” – beautiful, isn’t it? Thinking in terms of a team and being a team – what could be the “same substance” that let us stick together?

  • Our shared values – what do we believe in and want to stand for as a team?
  • Our purpose as a team – The Why are we doing what we do?
  • Our vision – or finding the human value and direction of our work.
  • Our self-perception – How we see ourselves inside and outside the organisation.

One of the greatest exercises I have tried with some of the teams I was lucky enough to work with (Thank you forever everyone of you, for all I learned from you!) was defining the above steps thinking about: who are we making happy?

In diverse workshops and team building moments – which by the way, can happen within our weekly routines – we embedded discussions about the 4 points above in our team meetings and even work processes.

Here are some examples for inspiration:

  • Our shared values
    • Helping others.
    • Trusting others.
    • We respect and celebrate each other.
    • We can make mistakes and learn from them.
    • Expressing gratitude
  • Our purpose as a team
    • Making our clients happy.
    • Increasing our client’s satisfaction with our product.
    • Making our clients smile when they see us.
    • Enabling clients or individuals to have a satisfactory experience.
    • Engaging with our clients authentically and meaningfully in each interaction.
    • Using our diversity to look for the best solution.
  • Our vision
    • “We want that our clients can make the most out of their business with our product”
    • “Clients should feel empowered by our systems and support.”
  • Our self-perception
    • We are the voice of the clients in our organization.
    • We care about outcomes and take accountability for our actions.
    • We represent an organization that cares about our clients.
    • We love what we do and strive for continuous learning.

If you want to learn more about how to define vision and mission statements, I recommend this article.

Whenever we struggle to find a positive light in our days, when we struggle to find meaning and purpose in repetitive tasks – we can look at reframing our tasks and thoughts and trying what Amy Wrzesniewski calls Job crafting to find more meaning and engagement at work.

The most passionate teams are the ones that find cohesion in the awareness and responsibility of making others happy with their jobs.

Whatever it is we do, there is someone out there, to whom what we do is important.

Remote work and collaboration – a perfect fit in a culture of trust

For a long time, companies would have very specific policies about presence times in the office. The reason we are even talking about newly found „work-life balance“ and flexible home office regulations is because this was not a given privilege before.

Obviously at these present times, trying to slow down the Corona pandemic and trying to avoid social contact, companies and teams embracing virtual and remote work will prevail over those who will not recognize the impact and adapt quickly. And this change and adaptation can be so much fun!

Along my way working with other leaders and people in charge of coordinating teams, I observed that many of them considered it necessary to literally watch their team to ensure they were doing their job. I even learned about cases where people would ring their employees at 9am sharp on their home office day to ensure people were working. Others were asking employees to send an e-mail every hour to show presence.

As in every modern culture of trust and employee empowerment, the first premise to any kind or working relationship or collaboration is trust. It seems obvious, but unfortunately, it is not. Being physically not able to shadow your employees while going about their business can make those people very nervous, who believe in control as an effective way to ensure productivity in their teams. This is natural, as this is the way we were trained to lead years ago. It makes team managers nervous because there is a fear that their manager could ask what the team is doing – and not knowing that would show weakness. But do not worry, remote working settings are a precious opportunity to show team leadership as well as the powerful resilience of team spirit and collaboration.

Let’s keep something in mind: Team dynamics are created from the interaction of people. The way we drive productivity together, how we use the best of our skills to get things done together, how we motivate each other and push each other to reach our goals together – it is all the result of interaction. That is why it seems so important these days to have rooms to discuss creatively; campuses to work on innovative ideas, tools and knowledge sharing capabilities: It is all about the interaction. But the interaction is between people, right? Not between places. An interaction in 2020 can take place digitally anytime.

Nothing makes us more productive, effective and happy than knowing that somebody trusts us and has faith in us. This is a proven thing. As a leader, your job is to enable your team to have clarity on their tasks and give them the necessary support to complete them. You hired these people to do their job and deliver. Let them do so. Trust them; you will be positively surprised when you do.

Of course, there has to be a framework around remote working to create a common understanding of team culture. Here are some tips that have proven to be helpful for teams I had the pleasure to work with:

  • Talk to all your team members about your expectations on how to deliver remotely. Do you need an extra report, do you need a summary at the end of the week? How will you measure success for the week remotely?
  • Let your team members openly discuss how they want to check in with each other to ensure effective collaboration and, most importantly, communication!
  • You can create a Starter Call with everyone present on a Monday to discuss the tasks of the week and put them in a shared Kanban board (Trello, Teams, Jira, Wrike, Planner, you name it)
  • Express encouragement on how you KNOW that everybody will try their best to get things done.
  • Define rules of communication within the team, such as checking into collaboration tools. A „Good morning!“ in slack in the mornings can get your day started with a ray of sunshine.
  • Checking-out is also important. People will know to not expect answers from you anymore.
  • All meetings can be re-assessed. Look at this as an opportunity for your organization to decide how collaboration and transparency will give you and your team back several hours of your days by skipping meetings that followed old patterns of auto-control.
  • Communicate tasks properly, defining deadlines and ways of sharing with the rest of the team or stakeholders.
  • Create collaboration boards that are openly shared across the teams involved to motivate people to show their work to others and encourage transparency within the organisation.
  • It does not require a lot of investment to set up a collaborative, transparent and fun remote culture! A lot of free tools like Slack, Trello, Wrike, Google etc. offer options that can be used immediately even without a budget
  • Team leads can create mechanisms or frameworks to trust self-administration and encourage self-discipline. The team as a whole will create a dynamic of exchanging information by seeing that from others.
  • Encourage your team to document their knowledge and experience in an accessible tool e.g. Confluence – never on personal drives and file systems only intuitive to the one creating them.
  • The whole team should be responsible to provide transparency over all processes and tasks of the team.
  • The whole team should be responsible for keeping the communication open and respectful and make appropriate use of collaborative tools. And YES, please share GIFs and funny cat pictures. You need to keep the interaction human, please.
  • The whole team should discuss topics openly in channels where the whole team can participate and document the learnings.

Remote working does not have to become a challenge for digital workers. It should be an opportunity to think about how your time is being invested effectively. Remote working will give you space to create and innovate and a new way to interact with other people. It turns out that a lot of people are the funniest when they do not have to crack the joke in the room, but on the super funny slack channel called „Fun stuff“. Try it. It will make you smile several times a day.

Being a team enabler or leader, you should create a culture of trust and empowerment. It is a great opportunity to grow – for your team and yourself!

Why the word ‘feedback’ gives most people the creeps

The first thing we need to keep in mind is that we are humans. We have fears and feelings and all those things that get the best of us if we let them take over. This post is about why the culture of feedback is so important, as the need to talk about it should be attended.

In most corporate cultures, at some point, People & Culture departments look for a feedback culture. As soon as little teams start growing into structural elements of an organization, reporting lines are defined and working ethics need to find new common ground, human interaction becomes much more than ways of communication. People start learning from one another and also – mostly unconsciously – giving feedback in different situations. Giving feedback is not a skill that everybody masters as they navigate through professional life. Giving and receiving feedback is something people can learn to be able to be constructive and grow from the feedback they get.

Feedback is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “advice, criticism, or information about how good or useful something or someone’s work is.” but also “the unpleasant noise produced by electrical equipment such as an amplifier when some of the power returns to the system”. It is interesting how the first definition addresses an ambivalent emotional component (criticism/how good) while the second definition already includes the element of negative emotion “unpleasant”. These are both different definitions and contexts, but feedback is associated with both emotions and generally mostly with negative implications.

I was very nervous the first time I asked my first boss for feedback. I was nervous because I actually associated feedback with criticism and wasn’t sure how this would affect my job moving forward. I asked because as a beginner, I had no idea how I was performing and if this was meeting expectations. I was lucky. My boss at that time was a very human person and walked me through a set of examples to underline the feedback. This helped me to improve my daily tasks, such as writing nicer e-mails and paying more attention to detail. At the end of the day, my experience with feedback was very situation-conscious and had nothing to do with me as a person.

Years later, I faced a great challenge sitting on the other side of the table. Peers and people from different departments came to me to complain about the toxic attitude and underperformance of one of my team members. I was not shocked, to be honest. I had kind of, carefully, tried to, intended to, give some advice to this person as to how this perception might need to change. This huge hesitation on my part to actually get there and talk to this person prevented me from providing feedback that would have helped this person to grow much sooner. To make things worse, the problem was not only within the team – but it had become a general one, as more and more people in the organization were noticing and coming to me to correct the situation. To solve my dilemma on how to tell this person how this toxic behavior was affecting our work, I asked for help. My very experienced colleague in charge of HR gave a piece of advice that I will never forget: “You should never be afraid to call out behavior that is related to a work situation. It is about a specific behavior or action in a specific situation, not about the person.” WOW

Ok, so if I was to help this person improve perception and collaboration with others, I needed to get to them by bypassing the personal, emotional layer and get their attention by making this about the situation and not the person. Got that. It was all of a sudden an easy task. Why? Because the feedback was about actions and examples and not about the person itself. So there I went and talked to this person about the specific situations where the behavior was leading to discord and helplessness among others and I decided to give this person a framework of rules to communicate with others, making clear that certain behavior (being rude, making personal remarks or refusing work assignments) wouldn’t be tolerated. You might think this was harsh. But it was not. It stuck. Out of this situation, we discovered several things:

  • This person was not coping well with change. Things had been though the last couple of months in their life and she was having a lot of trouble getting along with other people at work. I realized, that I should have known this if I had asked more often and helped this person to ease into interaction with other departments.
  • I was not being very clear in my assignment and this gave room for this person to have the feeling that decisions around doing something or not were theirs. Learning for me: Better communicate my assignments and expectations. Give no room for uncertainty as to when results are expected.
  • This person had the feeling that after so many years in the company, there were no development opportunities and therefore it made no sense to keep trying to grow there.
  • I learned that I should have stepped in much earlier in the process and talked to this person to create a development plan and prevent the frustration that caused this behavior.

I learned a lot from that experience. I learned to frame feedback encompassing specific situations, making sure to improve the situation and not the person itself. And the one thing that I learned most, was that it was ok for me to step in and intervene to improve the situation. 

Feedback is about expressing your perception of certain things and interactions in specific situations. You are always allowed to express how things make you feel. It is never about how the other person is – no matter the situation – is about how this gets to you or others.

Being a team enabler or leader, you should create a culture of feedback. It is a great opportunity to grow for your team and yourself. 

Here is a framework on regular meetings and questions that you and your team members can use to empower one another in a culture of feedback and constant learning:

1:1 Meetings – some ideas

  • 1:1 should be scheduled at least bi-weekly and happen ad hoc if necessary.
  • At 1:1 we talk about the person and their work in the team, challenges, and blockers they are encountering.
  • You need to set up SMART goals and follow these through.
  • We need to document what we discuss and hold our commitments.
  • We find solutions instead of excuses.
  • Never finger-pointing! Constructive feedback is the key to successful collaboration.
  • Confidential information: decisions related to other staff, salary, contract contents, protocols from feedback discussions and other relevant information to your employee.

@Health & @Emotional Check

  • What’s going on with your life?
  • How is this affecting or driving your work?
  • Are you on your 100%, 80%, less?
  • Need encouragement?

Respect, motivation to learn, ability to auto-reflect and acceptance to try new things will make a feedback culture incredibly helpful, useful and inspiring. 

Please feel free to use this Trello board as a source for inspiration:

Probation period – Can we change our minds? What can we do to make it work?

Imagine you would get the chance to try it out – marriage – before actually doing it. With all the emotions involved, all the magic and still, being able to call it a day if you are not fully into it. That might be the difference between a happily ever after or a bittersweet rose war. But as any relationship, it is always about communication how this probation period can be part of a learning process, fair to all participants and serving the purpose of your company.

Probation periods are used in a lot of companies to be able to “correct mistakes made when hiring”. This is not enough. Probation times can be greatly gratifying learning experiences not only for the new employee but for the organisation and for you as a leader even more. New people will always give you new insights in how you work with new perspectives and how you adapt to new personalities. As a leader you have the great opportunity to learn something new and to be surprised or even taken off guard. Your emotional intelligence can only benefit of new exposure.

On the other hand, your team will also have a great opportunity to grow – not only in numbers – but within their existing roles. You will be surprised how mentoring a new colleague might be reinvigorating for the long-year employee being their expert self every day. A few days to be able to receive appreciation for this, will remain a great source of motivation.

Well, there are a lot of reasons why we hire someone. In most of the cases we know right from the start, out of a gut feeling, that everything works just fine. In some we get desperate and start allowing compromises. All can work out, but in all cases you need to be aware that you as a leader will be responsible to make it work too. It is a two-way thing, a work relationship – where it can work out or it just won’t. 

Please feel free to use my Trello board „Framework Probation Period“ to get started or some inspiration to start your own.

Let me share with you some of my learnings along the way:

Before you start, prepare your organization for the role. 

You want to hire someone to be part of your team. Surely you have some very clear ideas what this person is supposed to be doing or needs to do when joining your team.

BRING THIS TO PAPER! – For all the people involved in the process of recruiting and hiring YOUR person, a role description & definition will provide the guideline to things to look after when interviewing candidates. For you, this role description will be the crucial backbone for getting understanding of this person’s value to your organisation and expectations towards that role.

Introduction to your organization

This is usually done by HR on the First Day and during the onboarding days BUT… always remember that YOU are responsible for the person starting in your team to truly understand the value they are contributing to the organisation as a whole.When introducing your company to your new team members try to remember some very important things:

  • What is the purpose of your company?
  • How do your team contribute to this purpose?
  • Who are your decision makers?
  • What other departments do you rely on?
  • What other departments benefit from your work?
  • Who needs to know your new person?
  • Personally introduce them!
  • AND make sure that your new person knows where to get: Food, beverages, me-time, book meetings and conference rooms.
  • Where to find general information and how to understand corporate communication.

Make your new people know they are welcome and much needed and how you are eager to let them contribute to your success. This first weeks will be the basis for a trusting working relationship. Inspire your new employees to invest themselves in their new job and reduce the natural caution that new employees have because of the fear of losing their jobs by making mistakes.

Getting to know your organization and the people in it

One very important step of onboarding is making sure your people know who makes decisions and how they need to prepare for decision making. Not less important is to make sure that decisions makers and stake holders to your specific team know about your new people. For this reason, make proper introductions and explain what the person will do. It will speed up a lot of things for your and your team once your new team member is confident enough to address decision makers or speak their language. Early exposure to this process is a sign of trust as well as a very good way to show your new employee how things are done in the company.

Please DO NOT share your bias. Really. Your opinion about people, other leaders, decision making processes, food etc. is only that: YOUR OPINION. Be concise, prudent and always an example to your team. Keep your opinions to yourself and communicate only what is important to your new people. Explain in detail how your decision makers like to work: Pyramidal communication, straight to the point, elevator pitch etc. When you explain the roles of other people, please make sure to not share personal details or rumours or any other “funny” facts. Think about how you would like other people in the organisation to talk about you. This is how you talk about other people. Communicate simple expectations: Respect, politeness and collaboration should be a MUST at all times. “Where do I go to…?”

Simple as that: Give your new employees a guiding word on where to get what they need: Information, tutorials, trainings, manuals, IT support & help, nice pictures, etc. Do not just “expect” they will find out or ask for them.Remember: You are onboarding them. You need to provide this information.

Introduction to the training and onboarding plan

Every team should have a training plan. Let your team members prepare those beforehand and give them tasks to be trainers to new employees. This is extremely invigorating for “old” team members and a very cool way of bringing your people together and getting to know each other.

Train skills that you knew at hiring where going to need some help: Sometimes you decided on a candidate well knowing that some other skill was not perfect. It would be totally unfair to come back after the trial period and miss the skill, being this what is making you unhappy with your new person. So, pretty simple, if you know some skill is missing, train it in the beginning! This way, the person will have all necessary skills – or the best possible – when he/she starts doing the job. As a team lead, you need to motivate yourself and the rest of the team, to make everything possible to get new people up and running as soon as you can. It is also your responsibility to create a safe-to-try environment for your new employees in order for them to develop into the role they were recruited for. New employees are new to the company but surely not new to work. You hired them because they have specific experiences or skills, right? Exactly! So, use that.

Set expectations for your team as well, how this new experience will enrich everybody and how this will help the team to be more successful.

Tools to work with

No. Tools are not obvious to work with. Even the most common Microsoft Office is used so very differently in every company. Train your new employees how YOU work with the tools. How are e-mails are used, collaborative working tools, software or interfaces used for the daily work.

Trust your instincts, don’t be afraid of making decisions

Employing someone new should follow the principle that you made a GOOD decision about hiring them. You should engage with your new employees trusting that it will work out and not holding back energy in case it doesn’t. That is a self-full-filling prophecy very commonly found.

After 90 days you should be ready to make a decision to keep going or not. Yes, it is a difficult decision, as this will impact the future of your team or the future of this person. Still, this is no team decision. Please remember, that your team is biased and will always choose the emotional factor in this kind of decisions. They didn’t set the expectations. You did. You can consider opinions but it is your evaluation what should drive the decision. At the end of the day: You defined expectations, provided training and onboarding and discussed milestones. It should be a pretty transparent and objective discussion with your new employee if this works out or not. Let’s be honest. After 90 days, you know already if something is working out or not. Do not fear failure by being critical about a hiring. It will be best for both parties to decide quite quick if this will work out or not.
Uncertainty is no motivator to perform. Fear of losing the job neither! Make sure that you empower your new employees by letting them know soon that you are happy, not so happy or quite unhappy and how this is affecting your power to decide.

How to deal with underperformance?

Underperformance will be even more expensive and utterly damaging than having to start a hiring process all over again. You will never be happy and your team performance will pay the consequences. Be brave and break the cycle in time.

Document your learnings from Hiring to Onboarding to Work and Performance and make sure you change things of you notice there was room for improvement. Learning from all experiences will give you a pretty good idea of what should be done the next time.
If you need a good learning process, try this:

I am convinced that everybody needs a good start. I truly believe that it is also ok to call it a day if things do not work out. In most of the cases, it is not a question of something failing but just a mismatch.

Why bother writing about the necessity of leading people with empathy in just another blog?

Well, because it cannot be emphasised enough.

Along my way I have met a lot of people. All from different countries, backgrounds. All with their own beliefs, personalities, individual ambitions. We have one thing in common. We are people. We have ideas, dreams, feelings, soft skills and perceptions.

Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.

— Oscar Wilde.

If we create a working culture in which being a human being and being respected and treated as such is encouraged, we will release the inner-heroes in ourselves and the people we work with. The more you see in the people you are lucky enough to lead, the more they will start seeing it too and start evolving their own ways of being as team members, performers and innovators.

This blog is not supposed to tell you how to do it. This blog is about sharing experiences, giving you some starting points to structure your own team and working culture and thrive. Try it, it is an amazing experience.