How I Use One Single Question to Change My Interactions at Work

When I landed my first job, I quickly found myself in a tricky situation: I worked with a coworker who thought it was ok to belittle me.

The attacks were subtle. He wouldn’t make eye contact when we were together unless forced to. Took every chance he got to make sure I knew he had more tenure than I did and therefore obviously knew more. Never tried to get to know me by making small talk. Never, ever asked for my input on anything.

We worked on the same team and it was daunting. It shook my confidence. I second guessed decisions and kept to myself during team meetings. I never felt good enough.

This went on for months, until I found the courage to confront him. It wasn't a pleasant conversation. I learned he was frustrated that I had been hired in at the same level he was, even though I was so much younger and just starting out. And he was taking that frustration out on me, sometimes even subconsciously, because he was so angry and couldn't get over it.

How often do we do that to others?

When we spend the majority of the day thinking about ourselves, we risk coming from a place of negativity or selfishness when we interact with colleagues. Our thoughts perpetuate subtle, belittling behaviors because we're only focused on ourselves. Sometimes we consciously do it, but other times we don't even realize how we're treating others because we are so focused on our own feelings.

It looks like:

  • I can’t believe I didn’t get credit in that email chain. Intentional reaction: Next time I'm just not going to reply at all.
  • My boss never thinks my ideas are good enough. Subconscious reaction: Not talking in team meetings, answering emails or playing on your phone instead, not interacting with the team.
  • I am so angry at the amount of things on my to do list. Intentional reaction: Since no one else on the team has as much work as I do, I'm going to complain every chance I get.

What if, instead of focusing on how we feel, we came from a place of: How do I want you to feel when we're done talking?

Most of the time we don't intentionally go into a conversation thinking "I want this person to feel like I don't like them" or "I hope they feel inferior to me after this" but that's exactly what happens when we spend the majority of the day thinking about ourselves.

Having an "I" perspective can be detrimental to how others view us, especially if what we're thinking about and dwelling on is always something negative and we let it affect how we treat others.

Next time you join that conference call, answer that email, or go to a meeting, ask yourself: How do I want others to feel when this is over?

Your "I" perspective will instantly disappear.

What Are You Doing to Be More Productive?

Yesterday I struggled with focus. My mind was everywhere.

Design this class. And that class. Create a catchy title and description for an upcoming manager session. Send out calendar invites. Start prepping for upcoming important meetings. Answer incoming emails and help someone work through an urgent talent management system question. Catch up on Twitter and LinkedIn and Forbes Leadership articles.

Oh, and just that little pesky thing I'm creating on the side that I like to call start your own business.

One thing I really like about myself is that I generate great ideas and then execute on them. It makes me an effective instructional designer and talent development guru.

But it also hurts my productivity because my brain bounces in so many directions and I often start one thing, move on to something else, but then feel inspired by a song I'm listening to or a Twitter post I read and stop everything to write down the idea.

And then I get exhausted because my brain is spinning in so many directions and frustrated because I don't have a work output to show for the energy I've put into the day. Sound familiar to anyone?

On my best days there are a few things I do to keep myself focused.

I've figured out that I'm most creative in the morning and that constantly checking social media takes time out of my creative block. I know that I feel a sense of urgency to reply to emails, so checking constantly makes me less productive. I know that I need to set up my day each morning if I want feel successful.

I also do these things:

Block time. I need time to think. Regroup. Eat a snack. On a day filled with meetings or a looming to do list, I divide my calendar into chunks. I might schedule 30 minutes to myself before an important meeting or in between back to back meetings. Or block an hour of time to work on something in particular. If it's on my calendar, it holds more weight than if it's in a bulleted list in my notebook.

Identify "in the zone" windows. I'm at my best in the mornings. Because I know that, I choose to do the hard things in the mornings - the things that take the most energy or thought or creativity. I'm also my most nervous in the mornings, so if I have to schedule an important meeting, I'll put it after lunch. That way I can prepare in the morning (when I'm most productive).

Walk around. As the afternoon goes on, I get less and less productive. I stare at my to do list and then decide to search on Amazon for something I obviously desperately need to survive. When I hit the reset button every hour in the afternoon, my focus improves. I have something to look forward to and when I sit back down, I've given myself permission to switch gears and work on something else. It's when I've been sitting at my desk for hours that I lose all ability to be productive and convince myself that online shopping or social media is a better use of time.

Connect. When I'm struggling with focus or getting stuff done, it might seem counter intuitive, but if talk to my coworkers, the connection that's made leaves me feeling refreshed. It doesn't have to be a deep conversation (I'm introvert and those are painful ) - it just needs to reset my brain so that when I sit back down I'm recommitted to getting something done.

It's taken years for me to realize and commit to doing the things that make me productive. On my best days I practice all of these tips, and on my worst days I give myself grace (because I'm human and mess up) when I'm unproductive because I didn't follow my own advice.

Self-awareness is a key component to effective leadership and an easy way to practice it is to understand what it takes to be at your peak of productivity. Without this, we glide through the day on autopilot, feel like we've been pulled in twenty different directions, leave work exhausted, and then go to bed feeling like there's nothing to show for it. 

I Coached Them. But It Didn't Work.

You've been coaching an employee and it's not working.

You say things like:

We've been over and over this and she still isn't improving. I thought he understood but a week after our conversation he's still doing the same thing.

What if I shared that the coaching conversation itself isn't actually going to change anything?

 It's just the starting line.

Recently I was working with a manager who was frustrated that his employees would say "I understand" at the end of a coaching conversation but then go back to their desk and keep doing the same thing.

"Do you ask them to restate, in their own words, what they're going to do differently?"

Step 1: During a coaching conversation, the other person should restate what they see as the behavior change they will make. By doing this, they are reframing and rewording what they've heard you say. This is one way it begins to stick.

After a coaching conversation, many managers assume that's all that needs to be done. I mean, we're both adults, right? We talk about it, we agree that change needs to happen, then you go out and do it because that's my expectation.

Umm …. but we're humans too.

So that makes it messy. There are competing priorities. We forget the conversation even happened once we leave work because our personal life takes over. We don't really want to change, so we wait to see if we're going to be held accountable.

 Step 2: After a coaching conversation, follow up regularly. Ask probing questions that encourage the other person to share feelings and thoughts. Asking "where do you think you're struggling?" or "how are you feeling about xxx" or "where do you think you've made progress?" creates meaningful conversation that reinforces the behavior you're expecting and provides a chance to process information differently. Answering these questions takes analysis and evaluation, which means the brain has to draw connections and justify decisions.

Ok done. We've talked about it. I've followed up daily for a week. Surely that's enough effort. I mean, I have a day job and I'm spending too much time on this. 

It can stop here, but the behavior change won't stick. It might stick - for a few weeks, until the next performance conversation, maybe even through that big project the team is working on. But at some point, that person will fall back into their old ways, because they never made it to the most critical part of learning - creation.

Step 3: For as long as it takes, offer support until they are creating new knowledge independently. This could look like:

  •  Coming up with new ideas: You've coached Mark on improving how personable he is with new clients, and without being asked he decides to ask a colleague to help him come up with easy conversation openers and schedules a monthly brainstorm meeting with them.
  • Teaching someone else how to do what they've done. You've coached Sarah on how to manage email more efficiently and after she figures out how to use the rules feature in Outlook, she volunteers to teach the team.

Coaching to achieve true behavior change is tough. It takes thought, effort and follow up. It takes optimism and persistence to see the process through. It takes time. Time that we don't think we have, but then we're back at the starting line, having yet another conversation about the same behavior. Which takes more time.

 And more complaining.

3 Easy Ways to Make Performance Reviews Less Painful

The dreaded performance review. A 20th century tool being used to measure 21st century skills. How can a conversation that happens 1-2 times a year measure creativity, innovation, risk-taking, or collaboration?

It can't.

But many of us are stuck with them because change is hard and feels scary and oh my gosh how will the company measure and reward people without performance reviews?

Most of us are going to be stuck with a formalized performance review process for the foreseeable future. But we don't have to use a 20th century approach to completing them.

  1. Old approach: Save up feedback and share it all during the review // New approach: Give feedback consistently in 1:1 meetings and use the review as a summary. I strongly believe that performance reviews should be 100% no surprises. Nothing new. Nada. Not a single constructive comment (or even positive feedback because managers should be telling their employees all the time what makes them awesome) that the employee hasn't heard before. One way to achieve this is to have regular 1:1 meetings throughout the review period. Most people feel uncomfortable giving constructive feedback. A 1:1 meeting can provide a platform for the manager to deliver feedback so that it feels less daunting. The alternative is that without this platform, most managers will save up all of their feedback and only give it at the performance review.
  2. Old approach: Write a novel using as many big words as possible // New approach: Solicit feedback from colleagues and incorporate it into the review. Ask the employee to choose 8-10 colleagues (from a variety of levels and departments). Then, send one email to that group (BCC everyone - this is one case where BCC is appropriate) asking two questions: What are this person's greatest strengths? What are their greatest areas of opportunity? Use this feedback (anonymously) in the review to create a more well-rounded and beneficial conversation. If you've been giving feedback regularly, the areas of opportunity that emerge won't be new information.
  3. Old approach: Schedule the review conversation in a conference room and don't talk about it until the meeting happens // New approach: Be open and transparent. Reviews are nerve-wracking. Know what's even worse? Having the meeting pop-up on your calendar and then pretending it isn't there because your manager isn't saying anything about it. Reviews aren't secret. Ask your employee when they want to have the conversation instead of scheduling it at the end of the day (who wouldn't read into that and immediately think the conversation is going to be bad?!). A few days before the conversation, tell them you're looking forward to talking about all of the great things they've done during the review period and are committed to the conversation feeling open and positive. Reassure them you're not going to surprise them with anything new.

If we have to continue to use performance reviews as a measurement of success, let's all agree to start calling them Performance Summaries. The phrase changes our mindset and approach to the process and makes it easier for everyone to endure.

When We Show Up

What do you want to be known for? What values and traits are most important to you?

We all have different answers to these questions, but these answers have something in common: they all come from a place of good intentions.

I can guarantee you weren't thinking -

"I want to be known for throwing others under the bus. And for having low integrity. Oh! And I also want to be known for being rude and unfriendly.


"I value being passive aggressive. And making others feel like they're not good enough because I don't like them."

How we show up matters.

On our best days, we think about how we're showing up - we are intentionally kind, choose our words and tone carefully, think something through before we say it. (And on our very very best days, we might even think: How will this make the other person feel?)

But on our worst days? Pessimism, frustration, stress, or negative events can all dictate how we treat others. It happens subconsciously and as a result, we don't even think about we're being perceived, don't see a problem with our behavior, or worse - don't even care.

Once these emotions come out and start controlling our actions, it's hard to stop. That's where these questions come in.

Asking yourself: What do I want to be known for? and What values and traits are most important to me? are centering. They create pause, help to set an intention, and make us proactive, instead of reactive, to feelings.

Taking one minute to think through these questions works, and it works any time: Before getting out of bed, walking into an intense meeting, or talking to that annoying coworker who needs extra direction and guidance. While responding to a rude email, participating in a team brainstorm session, or dealing with a random drive-by while trying to get something really important done.

Here's what it looks like in action:

  • It's the weekly team meeting- no one really gets along and your manager is talking down to everyone for not hitting numbers and as a result there is finger pointing and blame being passed around. Instead of joining in, the intention could be: I want to be seen as flexible and a team player here, someone who is willing to do whatever it takes to get the team back on track. I value integrity and collaboration.
  • It's Monday morning and you're expected to stop working when new hires are brought around for introductions - but something blew up over the weekend and you're trying to get back on track and answer all the emails that came in Sunday night. Instead of just giving a quick smile, barely looking away from your computer, or even worse, ignoring them (thinking, why does it even matter if I say hello and act nice), the intention could be: I value friendliness and want to be seen as someone who cares about others and puts people first. I want to be known for making others feel good about themselves. I don't want to be known for being the standoff-ish one who is always too busy to say hello.

How we show up matters. Be intentional about it.

The "F" Word


There, I said it.

Most of us have been conditioned to not discuss how we’re feeling at work. Maybe we’ve had leaders who didn’t do it, so we grew up in the workplace thinking it was taboo. Or our current boss judged us for sharing something pretty personal so we shut down and stopped altogether. Or we don’t even think about it because we’re by nature introverted or results focused and could care less about uncovering how someone is feeling.

In Gallup’s 2016 State of the American Workplace report, only 21% of employees say they are managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work. If you have a team of four, that’s one person. One.

We can’t live like this.

Motivating employees is an art, but it all boils down to one thing: the need to be noticed. Ask me how I’m feeling – you’ve noticed me. Talk through goal setting and help me understand the strategic plan – you’ve noticed me. Give me feedback (positive or constructive) – you’ve noticed me.

When we don’t discuss feelings, we are leaving out a critical part of motivating an employee. Being able to openly share is a gift, and it doesn’t come naturally for a lot of teams, which means it’s up to the leader to ask the right questions.

·        What’s been your biggest success this week? What are you most proud of?

·        How are you feeling about __ project right now? Why is that?

·        What can I do to help you feel that your work is meaningful?

·        What in your work is really inspiring right now?

·        What are your top work values? How are they being met right now?

Feelings. We all have them, yet at work we pretend not to have them. We sit in 1:1s with our boss and say everything is fine, or don’t share about the big personal issue at home that’s affecting our ability to concentrate, or see our boss’s poker face all the time and think that’s the only way we’re supposed to be.

Or, we want to share but are never given the chance.

There's a new "F" word on the block. And using it could make all the difference.

The Root Of It All

I hear a lot of reasons why people are frustrated with their jobs and their manager:

Out of nowhere, she started asking me to send a weekly spreadsheet documenting all the tasks I’ve done and how much time each took.

He doesn’t speak to me unless he needs something.

He steps in and answers everyone's questions and won’t let me run the project update meetings. I’m not being recognized as an expert in what I do.

In my extremely (un)scientific research on what makes employees unhappy, what’s stood out is that all of the reasons I hear have something in common: people just want to feel needed and appreciated.

It’s the root of it all.

Not feeling appreciated creates tension. At first, the employee manages it, either by seeking feedback from someone else or shrugging it off as a phase and assuming it will change.

But this behavior isn’t sustainable and over time the tension grows.

The frustrating thing is most people feel too awkward saying “I just want to know that I’m doing a good job and you appreciate my work” so they don’t say anything at all. Instead, they let it fester. And that festering becomes a hidden message for the manager to decipher, which is scary because without exceptional emotional intelligence, most managers don’t pick up on anything being wrong until there is a resignation letter in front of them.

Of course we want the employee to advocate for themselves but a manager can’t control if that happens. So, how can we gauge if employees are feeling needed and appreciated?


Use open-ended questions that leave room for talk about feelings (the dreaded “f” word):

·        How can I be the most helpful to you this week?

·        What’s motivated you this past week?

·        What is your biggest accomplishment this month?

·        What could I be doing differently to make sure you feel supported?

·        What can I do to help you enjoy your work more? 

To dig deeper, use follow up questions like “Could you tell me a little more about that?” or “What has that experience been like for you?” that uncover their true feelings. Watch for blinking words - what are they saying that indicates they don’t feel appreciated? It could be an illusion to not having enough resources or support for a project, or feeling unprepared to deal with an angry customer. During the conversation, also ask yourself: How would I feel if this were me?

Because that will be the most important question of all.

The Struggle is Real

Four years ago I became a mom. I had changed only a handful of diapers in my life and was never a babysitter growing up, but I thought for sure that motherhood was going to be easy, that I would quickly learn how to feed, bathe and change my daughter and then everything would be smooth sailing.


The first four months of my daughter's life found us parenting a baby with colic and acid reflux. This meant she cried every time she ate, every time she was uncomfortable, every time she felt like it (so, 5+ hours a day for roughly 120 days). And suddenly I was forced to learn an entirely new set of skills that I had rarely ever practiced before, both personally or professionally (truthfully I thought I was already good at them):

Flexibility. Patience. Not always being right.

The crying was brutal. Just when I thought I'd mastered the "thing" to make her stop , it would stop working. The different reflux treatments we tried each took time to gauge its effectiveness - there wasn't one single thing that immediately made a difference - because babies aren't robots and there isn't a one size fits all solution (try telling that to a sleep deprived mom who is barely eating or showering).

My over-achieving, A player, smarty pants personality could barely handle it. I was wrong often. Forced to be flexible, bending to her needs every hour, giving up plans with friends to stay home. Patiently waiting out the crying. Patiently waiting for the new medicine to show results.

And isn't this just like being a manager for the first time? We promote employees to lead others because they seemingly have it all together. They know the subject matter and get great results, so because of that, they'll be great at managing, right? Read a few books, ask for advice from a few trusted sources ... the rest will be easy.

That's certainly what I thought about motherhood.

Managing people requires flexibility. Patience. Not always being right. And new managers have a hard time with that. Weren't they promoted for always being right? Taking charge and fixing things? Suddenly they're being asked to step back and get results through others. That's tough on the ego if you've been the one doing all the things and getting all the results for your entire career.

Without a good leader to emulate and a mentor to coach and develop, most new managers find themselves in the same situation as motherhood found me: forced to learn new skills in the moment and pushing back on the self-awareness that inside was telling me to "slow down, be flexible, have patience, try again."

We promote employees who are good at their jobs, rarely wondering if they're good with people. Yet we're surprised when they are miserable and the team starts complaining about being micro-managed or not managed enough.

No one is surprised when a first time mom admits she is struggling, so why are we surprised when a first time manager admits it? The assumption is that the employee, having had the magic wand of promotion waved over them, will suddenly know how to manage people. Schedule a 1:1 (aka learn how to feed and change the baby) and everything else falls into place.

I realized I needed a huge support system (still do) when I became a mom four years ago, but it took me months of misery to put my ego aside and reach out for help. It's a guarantee that the same thing is happening to new managers. The only difference is they're probably showering every day.

Can a Bad Manager Be Saved?

People leave people, not companies, right?

We're in an epidemic of low engagement (I like to call this "The Working Dead") and no matter how many perks a company offers, employees are still unhappy.

Managers make or break an employee.

Think about it.

A good manager develops and grows people. Listens. Understands everyone's values, gives autonomy and purpose (If you haven't read Drive by Dan Pink stop what you're doing and immediately go buy it), and provides regular feedback that comes from a place of good intentions.

A bad manager can't be trusted, puts the team last, is selfish. Doesn't provide regular feedback, set goals, or share information. Gossips. Acts passive-aggressively and quite possibly also has low integrity. (Having any one of these characteristics is a problem; count yourself lucky if you've worked for someone who had them all!)

When I find someone who has a bad manager (which I'm defining as a boss who has many of the qualities above or additional ones I didn't list - not just a few that can be overlooked) we start our coaching sessions by first looking within and seeing what changes can be made that might impact the manager's behavior. For example:

  • Are you taking things too personally?
  • How are you setting yourself up for success? Are you giving your manager a reason to do <insert behavior here>?
  • Are you always assuming the worst? Too much of a pessimist?

When someone has a bad manager this helps for a little while, but since it's a band-aid and treats the symptom (the employee's behavior), instead of getting to the root of the problem (the manager), the results aren't sustained. And that's the moment of truth:

Can you give your boss this feedback, and if so will it change his or her behaviors?

Yes! Pass go, collect your $200, jump for joy. This means the manager has self-awareness and high emotional intelligence. Which means he's willing to listen, empathize with what you're saying, and won't be offended.

No. It's a lost cause. If you can't talk it out for fear of being reprimanded or because she is so clueless that she won't take the feedback seriously, it's time to move on.

A bad manager can only be saved if there is high emotional intelligence, of which two components are empathy and self-awareness. These characteristics are the foundation of everything that comes next (continuous feedback, a support system, good leaders to emulate). Without these, it's a lost cause.

Why Does it Matter?

If you had to list your top values and how describe how each one is being met at work, could you do it?

Most people can't.

Think about a time something at work didn't feel right -

  • A colleague threw you under the bus in order to take the credit on saving a big account from cancelling
  • Your boss didn't recognize you for the revenue-generating project you spent months leading
  • No one on your team collaborates, instead preferring to work independently and in a silo
  • Overtime is often expected, and it comes at the expense of missing important family events

Why are some situations bigger triggers than others?

This is where values come in.

Our values are our personal bottom line.

They are our parameters for decision making and the principles by which we operate (I wish I could take credit for this line, but it's from The Leadership Challenge, which every manager should read).

When we don't know our values, we say things like "I'm unhappy at work but I can't pinpoint why" or "I don't know what would make me happy." We wallow in self-pity because we aren't empowered to change the situation. We job hop because we can't define exactly what we want, but maybe the next job has it. Guess what? It never does.

When we consciously know our values and someone acts with low integrity, or we don't feel needed and appreciated, or don't feel like part of the team, we can pinpoint exactly what's wrong.

Knowing personal values can help articulate why we stay (or leave) a job. It improves communication with our manager about how we want to grow (or explain why we don't want that promotion, because not everyone values growth). It identifies what we will (and won't) put up with at work.

There are a lot of great online resources to help determine personal values. A favorite of mine is from MindTools and can be found here. After going through this exercise, code each value with either a red, yellow, or green highlighter:

  • Red - this value is not being met and probably will never be
  • Yellow - this value is not being met but there's hope
  • Green - this value is being met

Then, let it marinate.

Why do you stay at your job? Why are you happy? Or are you unhappy? Why did <insert latest annoying behavior from a colleague here> get under your skin so much last week?

Let your values be your guide.