Archive | December, 2011

Aliens at Work

7 Dec

A version of this post was also published on the Executive Elements blog earlier this year.

At work, we can sometimes sense that we’ve been dropped onto an alien planet. I’m very fortunate to be working for and with people who are from “my planet,” but I’ve been in places that felt alien.

Don’t think you’re alone if you find yourself pondering:

  • What is this strange language that’s being spoken, and why don’t I understand it? Will they understand me if I say, “Plergh?”
  • Why are decisions made without any seemingly rational train of thought?
  • Is this a bad dream, or am I really awake?
  • Where’d I park my mother ship? I need to get back to Earth!

If you’re having these feelings, don’t despair. We’ve all been there. Every workplace can be awkward or downright difficult at times. Even the most healthy workplaces have their moments.

But if there’s a pattern of dysfunctional behavior, recognize it and take stock. In some sense, it’s all relative. Each of us has a different tolerance to workplace problems like aggression, passive aggression, professional neglect, workplace bullying or general incompetence. One person’s abyss is another’s heaven.

Don’t accept unreasonable behavior that jeopardizes your career growth or negatively impacts your ability to perform. Work is hard — that’s why it’s called work. But it should not kill your soul.

I’ve realized over the years that I have a high tolerance for environments that are not conducive to human life. Out of loyalty or pride (“I won’t give up!”), I’ve let myself suffer for too long at times. Don’t make that mistake.

If you are caught in the alien planet dilemma, here are some survival skills:

  1. PERSPECTIVE – Talk with someone outside of work about your situation. They can help you to get some perspective.
  2. CAMARADERIE – Blow off steam over lunch or coffee with a coworker that you trust. Chances are if you are feeling off about something at work, you’re not the only one. Don’t wall yourself off from your colleagues and make yourself feel more isolated. By commiserating, you may also find some humor in the madness.
  3. STAY POSITIVE – I remind myself that having a positive attitude and healthy self-esteem can’t change other people’s problems. What it can do is to help keep my head clear and my heart clean while seeking out what’s next.

Remember that it’s possible — and preferable — to thrive in the workplace. While it says something about a person’s endurance and fortitude to be able to to survive in challenging conditions, sometimes enough is enough.

Over time, I’ve realized that it’s important to go with my gut instincts when I start feeling as if things just aren’t right. A decision to move on when the time is right is not a failure. It is simply a decision to make a change.

Making Mistakes

5 Dec

Image: pakorn /

To Know Better is no saint and has been known to make less than stellar decisions from time to time.

We’ve all been there. Those who say they don’t make mistakes are either lying or not doing much. The more you try, the more you fail. And the more you have a chance to succeed.

I’ve had some stinging failures from friendships. Trusting people is a risk, and it doesn’t always work in your favor. But I’ve grown beyond that lost trust to build new friendships that have stood the test of time, where I can believe in myself and know that my friends support me as much as I support them.

Effort does make a difference. If I’ve put my all into something and I don’t succeed, I still try to have some sense of accomplishment. I have a tendency to throw myself into projects at work and put a lot of personal ownership and investment into the process and the outcome. I enjoy getting constructive criticism to help improve my work, but if the person I’m creating something for just doesn’t “get it” I feel like I’ve wasted a lot of time. To keep from having that feeling, I try to use the work for another purpose. Did I do research for it that helped me to learn something new? If so, then the process was worth it. If it’s something I’ve written, can I use it for my portfolio or a professional association blog post? Repurposing supposed “failures” makes them feel more worthy of seeing the light of day.

As a favorite mentor of mine often asks: “What is the lesson?” This helps me to see my way beyond the mistake, even when it feels as if “this is the end.”

Failures are not sins: They are learning opportunities–valuable data to help get it right the next time.

Everyone has their weaknesses. Missing the mark is human and can be fixed. Never trying, or not being honest with myself about what really matters, is the greatest disappointment.

Smart Leadership is Social

5 Dec

Image: Ian Kahn /

As I continue to read the Steve Jobs biography, two things are clear to me:

  1. Steve Jobs was a genius. He could envision the market demand for the substance of what his developers could build, and his product marketing skills delivered it with style.
  2. Steve Jobs was able to motivate his team intellectually, but often his social deficiencies worked against greater accomplishment. Bullying and berating his people had to create an organizational black hole of missed opportunities.

In my own experiences and through what I hear from others, in particular those of us in the creative class of workers, having a socially intelligent leader is critical. Daniel Goleman and Richard Boyatzis describe the concept in this Harvard Business Review post.

Socially intelligent leadership can leverage the intellectual capacity of teams, and enhance that capacity by upping everyone’s game through social connectivity. This means that each team member is given permission to perform to their fullest potential–and they are also encouraged to work WITH one another to push that potential into the unexpected. This type of innovative teamwork delivers disruptive innovation. When teams are led by someone with social intelligence, they create products and services that take their craft to the next level.

Let me give a couple of examples.

1. This first example comes from state government–shocking, I know. While working at the Ohio Department of Education, I was on a team assigned with creating a  report card to inform parents how their child’s school was doing on key performance indicators.

This was a new concept and required the team to tap into design, copywriting, and technology that would deliver thousands of these reports–each unique to a school–in such a way that parents would care to read them. Our leader helped us to imagine what the reports could be, and she created a team environment where we were free to put our all into delivering the reports we envisioned. She was not dictatorial. She asked more questions than she answered. She lifted us up when we made mistakes and thought we couldn’t do it. And she celebrated our successes with us along the way and when we did deliver the reports, on budget and on time.

2. My second example is from my current workplace, a nonprofit focused on educational transformation for schools. There’s a lot of innovation going on here. My role is a combination of client-facing and internal strategy support. The creative in me enjoys having the time and space to roll up my sleeves and “make stuff” (which for me means writing and doing information design) that is useful to internal and external clients.

My leader in this setting is an ace at managing demands and matching the best people to excel in meeting those needs. There’s been more than one situation where my big ideas have gotten the best of me. I have a tendency to “think big” and not consider the time commitment I’ll need to make to get to “big.” She knows this tendency of mine and encourages me to be vocal in asking for more resources to help reach the goal, rather than killing myself in the process of getting there by pulling all-nighters. What I appreciate about her approach is that she gives me the room to exercise my creativity, and she offers me the support I need to get there. In short, she saves me from myself.

Socially intelligent leaders ask questions, clear the path so that their team members can achieve, and help them find ways to pace themselves to sustain their creativity (and not burn it out) over time.

Riding with Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

2 Dec

I am getting excited about my annual tradition of rereading Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which I do every year between Christmas and New Year’s. The action unfolds in Medieval England and begins on New Year’s Eve, finishing a year and a day later.

Image Courtesy of Hurley Century Arts -

My favorite translation is a relatively new one, by English poet Simon Armitage.

I am fascinated by the story (an alliterative romance, for the experts) for lots of reasons:

  • Setting – The story is set in the North West Midlands, the general area of England that my ancestors came from. It just seems right that I should be reading this poem.
  • Symbolism – The author (unidentified) interweaves sexual tension and hunting (deer, boar and fox), temptation and self-control (including losing one’s head and giving away a girdle), nature and civilization, the mores of chivalry and courtly love. What else is there to discuss?
  • Story – This poem is an adventure to read. The story stands the test of time. There’s suspense, even though the themes are mostly about human nature. The writer does keep you guessing. And I’ve found that each time I reread it I pick up on a nuance I missed in previous readings.
  • Language – For me, this is the best part. (Caution: My undergrad honors thesis was on Cajun French morphemes. I’ll admit it: I geek out on words.)  I recommend a side-by-side translation. The original was written in Middle English, enjoyable to read because if you abandon all fear of the unknown the language is surprisingly understandable. Just don’t try to decipher every word. Think of the process as an adventure! Anyone who’s learned to read in a different language knows what I mean. The Armitage translation is lovely, because he’s a poet and knows how to do justice to the rhythm, sound and meaning of each word and verse.

Do yourself a favor and give the Green Knight a careful read. Steep yourself in language, and storytelling, at its best.

For those who have interest in learning more about how to intersperse your writing with Green Knights and other such characters, I recommend checking out this  Joseph Campbell book: The Hero With a Thousand Faces. I just found this helpful review from the Fuel Your Writing folks and am planning to give it a read.

Winter Blahs, Begone

1 Dec

The dark days are upon us. Leaving work at 6 pm and driving home in the dark is the pits. For me, it’s not the cold that gives me the winter blahs, it’s the short days and lack of sun. Put me in Montana with three feet of snow and clear blue skies, and I’m good. Too bad I live in grey and dark Oh-io.

There are certain tricks I’ve learned over the years to help make it to March.

1. Get blonder.

I know this may seem vain, but bear with me. I’m not a fan of extreme ways to enhance appearance. For myself, I’d consider it a waste of money to use Botox or get plastic surgery. I was brought up to believe that you stuck with what God gave you and made the best of it, end of story. Anyway, I barely have enough time to blow-dry my hair in the morning and would be embarrassed to spend hours and ridiculous amounts of money drastically changing the way I look. But in moderation there are certain enhancements that I can buy into.

Physical beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. And good looks, whatever dose of them we each get, don’t always stand the test of time. So why not celebrate the things that make us uniquely beautiful, in our own ways? This is my rationalization, plus the fact that it’s winter and something has to get cranked up a notch.

If there can’t be sun, then by God there will be blonde.

My favorite way to do this involves periodic use of a $15 product from the Target hair care aisle: John Frieda’s Sheer Blonde Go Blonder Controlled Lightening Spray. One bottle lasts me an entire year and keeps my dark blonde hair from getting sad and dishwatery in the winter. It’s basically straight-up hydrogen peroxide jacked up with some chamomile and lemon for organic-y marketing purposes. Now that I have glimpses of silver along with the blonde, the bottle does double duty. Money well spent for an extra dose of feel-good.

2. Go to bed and wake up earlier.

I try to align my active times with the light. My natural tendency is to stay up late. I’m much more of a night than morning person by nature. But I am lucky to have a husband who gets up on his own at 4:30 am. Too bad we don’t have cows. He wakes me up at 6 am, when the sun is getting ready to rise. I’m fairly out of it when I first get up, but I sit in our east-facing sunroom/greenhouse and drink coffee to get myself jump-started.

3. If unable to visit tropical climes, go to hot yoga.

Hot yoga is a type of yoga practice done in rooms heated up to 95-100 degrees. It is also called Bikram, after the man who invented it. The workout is vigorous because of the heat and the vinyasa style of movement, which basically connects all of the poses together and incorporates various series of poses that require you to work your core and move aerobically. You also integrate balancing, push-up-like moves, and overall strengthening.

The technical term for the way you move through these poses and combine them into series is called ashtanga yoga. It has been practiced for centuries, and in combination with the heat you get an incredible workout that releases toxins and puts you in la-la land at the end. You finish by laying on the ground, so you can kind of drift off if you don’t want to meditate like you’re supposed to be doing.

I can’t stand to do this when it’s warm because the heat is too intense for me then, but yoga all meet my needs in the cold months. My favorite studio here in Columbus is V Power Yoga.

4. Go outside even if you have to put on ski pants and end up looking like the Michelin Man.

Staying inside and sitting around combine to make me a grumpier and unhappier person in the winter. I have come to enjoy outdoor sports like skiing and hiking in the snow. Returning back home or the lodge and sitting in front of the fireplace is much more satisfying after brisk outdoor exercise. I wish we reliably had more snow here…I’ve had my eye on some snowshoes but can’t justify the expense if I can only use them a few times per year.

So there you have it, more free advice. Going into winter #44, I guess it’s about time I learn to live with it!