How to Inoculate Yourself Against Intention/Goal-Failure

In a previous post, I introduced the idea of competing commitments and how they interfere with accomplishing goals and making the changes we want. Since many of my coaching clients come to me in January with resolutions to work on, it’s important to understand why change is so hard.

Take the following example: Many people set New Year’s resolutions to lose weight and go to the gym. They may do fine for the first month. At week 5, they revert to last year’s status quo. As much as they want to lose weight and get fit, they also want to have fun, go out, spend time with family and friends, and enjoy life.

Voilà! Competing commitments in action! It’s human nature to achieve equilibrium and balance through practiced habits and routines. When we try to change these routines, we’re unprepared to face the powerful magnet of our previous habits.

Yet, when we’re aware of this force’s strength, we can inoculate ourselves. We can push back. By acknowledging our competing commitments, we can make a more balanced decision about maintaining new goals and changing old habits and routines.

Most of us think it’s just a matter of willpower, but we truly underestimate the powerful force that pulls us back to old habits. The mind has ironclad excuse systems that run in the background, which are designed to reduce anxiety and protect us from worry. Unfortunately, these excuses are often based on false assumptions that can set us up to fail.

Consider the following examples:

My Goal

I am committed to the value or importance of…

How I Sabotage

What am I doing (or not doing) that prevents me from achieving this goal?

Competing Commitments


I may also be committed to:

False Assumptions


I assume that…

  1. Losing weight




I eat more than I need for my size; I snack; I eat the wrong foods, fats and sugar; I eat for pleasure, not to nourish my body. I don’t want others to see me as a dieter; I want to forget my problems and enjoy food/life; I use food to ward off unpleasant feelings.




…if I diet, people will think I’m rigid and not fun; I’m afraid to feel alone and empty; food is my sole source of pleasure; I’m not a slim person, so why bother?

  1. Have more fun



There is so much work to do and no one else can do it


I feel so good when I take time to enjoy myself and have fun


There is not time to have fun.…if I don’t work all of the time I won’t get my work done.


What would your columns look like if you were to fill out this grid with your goal and competing commitments? I’d love for you to try this, and let me know your thoughts. Leave a comment.

Wisdom in Action

Prudent decision-making lies at the heart of wisdom but it’s not the whole story. In order to make a smart decision, a wise leader must draw upon intellectual, emotional, and social comprehension.

Over many coaching sessions with my clients, we discuss what goes into wise thinking.  Here’s a partial list of some of the things people describe as important. To make wise decisions, one must:

  • Gather information
  • Discern reality from artifice
  • Evaluate and edit the accumulating knowledge
  • Listen with both heart and mind
  • Consider what is morally right
  • Weigh what is socially just
  • Consider others as much as self
  • Think about the here and now
  • Consider future impact

In times of crisis, however, wisdom sometimes demands the paradoxical decision to resist action or judgment.

Some of the wisest and most devout men have lived avoiding all noticeable actions.” ~ Michel de Montaigne, French philosopher

There are no workbooks that, if you buy and read them, will turn you into an outstanding leader. Reading about wisdom will certainly open your mind to many possibilities, but to read about it without taking action is a fruitless endeavor

When called upon in any challenging situation, no matter how trivial, if you slow down long enough to ask yourself the question, “What would be the wisest thing to do?” you will already be moving closer to making a more appropriate and apt decision.

The question allows you to slow down the sense of urgency long enough to consider other people, other issues, and future implications. Instead of reaching for immediate solutions to take away the burning problem, you have an opportunity to consider future needs down the road.

The Contradictions of Wisdom

What are the elements that comprise wisdom? Here are recurrent themes and common qualities:

  • Humility
  • Patience
  • Clear-eyed, dispassionate view of human nature
  • Emotional resilience
  • Ability to cope with adversity
  • A philosophical acknowledgment of ambiguity
  • Recognizing the limitations of knowledge

And here’s where it gets challenging. Action is important, as well as inaction, at times. Compassion is central to wisdom, but so is emotional detachment. Knowledge is crucial, but often wisdom deals with uncertainty.

These inherent contradictions are embedded in any definition of wisdom. In fact, they are the essence of what makes wisdom so critical to leaders.

What else would you include as an important element of wisdom?

Finding Wisdom at Work

Fortunately, every time we think about wisdom and make an effort to pause and contemplate a potential role for true leadership in whatever we are about to say or do, we move a step closer to achieving it. But unfortunately, many leaders don’t take time to consider the larger issues when short term profits are at stake.

Whenever I’m working with a coaching client, we discuss some of the ways they think wisdom comes into play for them. While individual answers vary, most people find decision-making to be most challenging.

Wisdom in the workplace typically implies two distinct areas of wise behavior:

  1. The wisdom of decision-making.
    1. Knowing what information to use in decision-making.
    2. Creating a culture of knowledge in order to acquire that information in a timely fashion.
    3. Assessing it in both short- and long-term frameworks.
  2. Reaping the financial rewards that come with shrewd financial choices.

In many cases, business wisdom involves plain hard work, coupled with intelligence in several domains: knowledge, social intelligence, emotional regulation, compassion and concern for the common good.

Wisdom is more an ideal aspiration than a state of mind or a pattern of behavior that we customarily employ. The mere act of thinking about wisdom nudges us closer to it.

When you encounter a problem or dilemma, if you ask yourself, “What would be the wisest thing to do here?” you increase your chances of making a judicious choice.

Yet it’s rarely that simple. How do we make complex, complicated decisions and choices in the face of uncertainty and ambiguity? What makes some of these decisions so clearly sound that we intuitively recognize them as a moment of human wisdom?

Ultimately, without an understanding of the elements that comprise wisdom, it eludes us. In what ways do you have an opportunity to use wisdom in your work? I’d love to hear from you.

How to Use Humor at Work (Part 4)

How to Add Humor at Work

Timing can be everything when it comes to humor. Follow these guidelines to increase your chances of getting a few chuckles after your next one-liner:

  1. Watch for a playful mood before you tell a joke.
  2. Keep your stories short and simple.
  3. Laugh at your own jokes when a room goes silent. It’s contagious.
  4. Link laughter to something people already know: place, work or climate.
  5. Avoid laughing at other cultures; instead, laugh at your own.
  6. Laugh at your own ego.
  7. Listen to people who make you laugh, and mimic a few tactics they use.

How to Use Humor at Work (Part 3)

The Dark Side of Humor

Joking and sarcasm will earn you a few chuckles, but there’s often an element of negativity in funny remarks.

You must avoid crossing the fine line that transforms comic relief into hurtful jabs. As with anything in life, execution can elevate or sabotage your intentions. A gentle poke at someone’s weak spot may be just that, but perception is in the eye of the person receiving the poke.

Often, humor falls flat. Even worse than not being funny is inadvertent destructiveness. The problem occurs when we fail to recognize how what we say in jest can turn negative. We assume the recipient knows we’re “just kidding,” but research shows:

  • Nasty interactions have a 500% greater impact on one’s mood than positive interactions.
  • It takes numerous encounters with positive people to offset the loss of energy and happiness a jerk can cause in a single hurtful episode.

Laughter can also work against you if you diminish others or offend people by laughing at what they consider too crude or sacred. People rarely enjoy being the butt of jokes. This is why it’s best to laugh at yourself or an immediate situation you face at work, as opposed to others, their backgrounds and idiosyncrasies.

But be careful to avoid laughing at your own career competence, as those around you want to see courage and confidence. Otherwise, you risk undermining your position, and people will have a hard time taking you seriously.

How to Use Humor at Work (Part 2)

Humor and Creativity

Humor encourages creativity, allowing you to view challenges from new angles. You’ll enjoy playing with a variety of ideas and making innovative associations.

You’ll be more willing to step back and observe, often with a beginner’s mindset. As you begin to search for the exaggerations that make something funny, you use the same parts of your brain that help you create new solutions to old problems.

Humor and Managing Change

For the 99.4% of us who are continually wrestling with major workplace changes, humor can make your professional life much less frightening. It encourages out-of-the-box thinking and flexible attitudes – two important traits in people who manage change successfully.

Motivation and Morale

Workplace humor keeps the mood light and maintains a climate of positive energy. When morale is high, coworkers get along better, people enthusiastically do their work, and employees are more committed to goals.

Successful organizations celebrate milestones on their journey to achieve goals. That’s why many use fun and even wacky ways to reward employees for a job well done.

Humor Strengthens Teams

Teams that laugh together work well together. Humor breaks down stereotypes and promotes a sense of unity. It can build company traditions and a sense of shared history, which reminds employees they’re playing for the same team.

In meetings, humor encourages participation, minimizes conflicts, helps people retain information, opens up dialogue and sparks creativity. It livens up dry business correspondence, softens authoritative messages and improves the delivery of presentations.

Including your customers in the fun helps you connect with them on a human level, helps ensure loyalty and makes service memorable.

More managers are embracing their sense of humor as a way to build rapport with staff, communicate more effectively, show their human side more openly, develop trust and foster a supportive workplace climate. And as we succeed at what we enjoy doing, laughter improves the bottom line.

How to Use Humor at Work (Part 1)

In the national bestseller Flow, University of Chicago psychologist MihalyCsikszentmihalyi suggests two key factors determine our overall happiness:

  • Our relations with other people
  • How we experience our work

You can improve both areas by bringing humor to work each day.

Harvard Business Review (September 2003) reports that executives with a sense of humor climb the corporate ladder more quickly and earn more money than their counterparts.

Stu Robertshaw, a University of Wisconsin professor emeritus of education and psychology, cites a study in which a firm experienced a 21 percent decrease in staff turnover and a 38 percent decrease in Friday absenteeism after incorporating humor into the workplace.

And in another study, management professor David Abramis of California State University, Long Beach, determined that employees who have fun on the job are more productive and creative; are better decision makers and team players; and have fewer absentee, sick and late days.

A sense of humor offers many job benefits:

  • Reduces stress
  • Stimulates creativity
  • Boosts motivation and morale
  • Strengthens teams
  • Makes meetings more effective
  • Facilitates open communication
  • Improves customer services
  • Improves the bottom line

A good laugh reduces blood pressure, increases heart rate, massages internal organs and reduces the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood. It boosts blood flow to your brain, which means you learn more, forget less and feed your curiosity.

Humor also keeps your life in balance, allowing you to more effectively juggle personal goals, family commitments and work demands. You’ll maintain your sanity and perspective as you reduce tension in stressful situations and rise above crises.

Positivity in Management?

Like many of my colleagues, I’ve been intrigued about the research about happiness and peak performance from the new field of Positive Psychology. But like many of my clients, I’ve been waiting for someone to connect the dots between just “feeling good,” and bottom line results in business.

The term positivity has caught the interest of scientists who study the brain to learn more about optimal functioning. How does this play out in the work place, with business teams? What researchers are discovering about positive emotions at work is essential knowledge for anyone who wants to lead individuals and organizations to high performance.

One study of CEOs showed that positivity training could boost their productivity by 15 percent, and managers improved customer satisfaction by 42 percent. Positivity training programs have demonstrated excellent results with tax auditors, investment bankers and lawyers.

Briefly, here’s what these groups are taught to reduce stress and raise their levels of happiness and success:

  1. How to develop a positive mindset
  2. How to build their social support networks
  3. How to buffer themselves against negativity

Despite such training’s amazing results, many leaders remain completely unfamiliar with the concept.  Maybe there’s a stigma attached to positive thinking and happiness.

Being positive isn’t simply about being nice and giving in, nor does it mean suppressing negative information and emotions. Both are critical for optimal performance. Apparently, however, a 3:1 positivity-to-negativity ratio is the tipping point for individuals and business teams to go from average to flourishing.

When you experience and express three times as much positive as negative emotion, you pave the way for excellence and high performance. Most of us (80 percent) experience a ratio of 2:1.

In business, positive emotions yield:

  1. Better decisions. Researchers at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business studied how positive moods affect managers. Managers with greater positivity were more accurate and careful in making decisions, and were more effective interpersonally. (Straw & Barsade, 1993)
  2. Better team work. Managers with positive emotions infect their work groups with similar feelings and show improved team coordination, while reporting less effort to accomplish more. (Sy, Cote, & Saavedra, 2005)
  3. Better negotiating. At Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, researchers learned that when people negotiate complex bargains, positivity again surfaces as a contributing factor for success. (Kopelman, Rosette, & Thompson 2006)

Negotiators who strategically display positivity are more likely to gain concessions, close deals and incorporate future business relationships into the contracts they seal. Those who come to the bargaining table with a cooperative and friendly spirit strike the best business deals.

For sure, I know for myself that when I’m in a good mood, everything works better: decisions, collaborating, negotiating. The trick is to master thoughts so well that your emotions and behaviors reflect your positive mood. Everything flows from there.

Ah yes, that’s the ticket… yet that can be hard at times. What do you think?

The Art of Making and Keeping Agreements

“Like litter on the side of the highway, most unhappy relationships are strewn with broken agreements in all shapes and forms,” said Charlotte Kasl, Ph.D., author of A Home for the Heart. From canceling dates at the last minute to “forgetting” to do something we said we would do, broken agreements cause an erosion of trust, the basic foundation of any relationship. 

Giving our word and standing by it and being steadfast and reliable in our affairs are measures by which we judge commitment and integrity. For this reason, agreements—both spoken and implied—should be given thoughtful and careful attention. 

Consider Chris. Again and again he promised to come home early enough to share dinner with his family. And night after night, either he called to say he couldn’t make dinner after all, or he simply didn’t show until long after the dinner was ruined and the family was hungry and disappointed. 

Or Tina. She and her husband had an agreement that she wouldn’t make any additional charges on their over-burdened credit cards. But every month, the bills arrived, fat with new charges and higher-than-ever balances. 

In confidence, Diane told Judy about a problem. What an awkward surprise when Gayle, a mutual friend, asked Diane how she was coping with her difficulty.

In each of these instances, an agreement was broken and a trust betrayed. Everyone involved was tarnished by the experience—those to whom agreements were made, and those who made, and broke, the agreement.  

Making and keeping agreements requires that we are honest and that we intend to carry through. Thoughtful and careful agreements require that we listen to our inner voices and pay attention to our bodies for clues to our feelings about the promises we make. 

Whenever we make an agreement we need to ask ourselves: 

  • Is this a pledge I really want to make?
  • Is it realistic for me at this time?
  • What will it take or what will I have to do to keep the agreement? 

Some agreements are implied and ongoing. For example, the unspoken pacts of friendship might include maintaining or initiating contact, keeping confidences and talking about problems. In some cases, it may help to discuss expectations and needs. 

Sometimes, no matter how careful we are, we make an agreement we regret. Our schedules are dangerously overbooked or something that sounded good at first doesn’t feel right now. (Again, it’s important to pay attention to our inner voices and our bodies.) It’s better to call and make changes as soon as possible, rather than wait until the last minute or, worse, simply not show up. It’s important to tell the truth, too. Fake excuses and white lies don’t hold up under the straight beam of integrity’s light. 

The art of thoughtful and careful agreement-making is a learned skill. Broken promises and unfulfilled commitments may be as ubiquitous as the shards of ceramic that surround an apprentice potter. Still, we turn back to the wheel of our intentions, and begin again. Making and keeping agreements is a way of maintaining balance and showing our love and respect for others as well as for ourselves.

Author’s content used under license, © 2008 Claire Communications

Feedback Puts You In Control

A colleague who just heard your presentation at work is giving you some feedback that you were too quiet, didn’t get to the point quickly enough and lacked a compelling example.  Your breathing goes shallow and your body stiffens, your heart speeds up, and you look around to see if anyone is in earshot of this conversation. You worked for days trying to perfect this presentation—days! 

Faced with the often-difficult experience of feedback—in our work and personal lives—many of us respond in unproductive ways. But taking in feedback from others, both positive and negative, is imperative if we are to experience the satisfaction that comes with enhanced competence and improved relations. 

It is possible—and necessary—to think positively about feedback.    

Typical Reactions to Feedback

When given difficult feedback, most of us find that we do one or more of the following: 

Pretend. We say little, disguise any hurt or humiliation, push the feelings way down and eventually act like it never happened. Thank you so much for sharing that. 

Defend. We justify our actions, give explanations, point out reasons. There was so much happening last week, I didn’t end up with nearly the time I needed to prepare. Oh, and the microphone wasn’t working so well today.  

Deny. Denial automatically makes the other person wrong. I didn’t see a problem; I’m great at what I do.

Interrogate. We ask for proof that there is any truth to the feedback. Well, if you want me to understand what you’re trying to get at, I’ll need some specific examples. 

Lash out. Anger is the first reaction for some. Get off my back, will you? How dare you criticize me, you of all people! I thought you were my friend.  

Criticize. We go on the offensive through blame, innuendo or other unsolicited comments. I never believe anything those hotshots have to say. You know how it is in that department. 

Self-destruct. We turn all our negative reactions inward against ourselves. I am such a loser. I’ll never get it right. I’m never doing another presentation.   

All of these reactions serve to distract us from painful feelings of not being good enough, as well as the notion that we need to change in some way. But adapting to feedback—which inevitably asks us to change, and sometimes significantly—is critical if we are to succeed in our jobs, our marriages, our family relationships. 

Turning “Feedback” into “Food for Thought”

Taking the dread out of receiving feedback can happen with as little as a simple twist of words (“I wonder what’s going to happen” instead of “I worry about what’s going to happen”) and a slight shift in beliefs (“All feedback is a gift”). Here are some guidelines that can help transform feedback into food for thought: 

Track your own reactions. Recognize your emotions and responses. What body sensations, thoughts, emotions arise? Recognize that whatever arises in your mind is your own responsibility. It is not the other person’s fault you are responding as you are. You get to choose how you think and how you respond. When we own our own reaction, it opens the way for genuine communication with the other person. 

Get support. Though it may be difficult to identify, you may feel inhibited and ashamed upon hearing feedback that requires change. Ask trusted friends to listen, encourage and offer suggestions. Work with a coach. Even in settings in which people are expected to be self-reliant (such as many jobs), it’s nearly impossible to make significant change without such encouragement. 

Listen with an open mind and heart. Begin by acknowledging that the perception of the person giving feedback is the reality that needs to be looked at. Without confirming or denying the perception of that person, simply listen and take in what he or she has to say.    

Change defensiveness to curiosity. Don’t explain or defend yourself. It may be appropriate to bring the subject up later, if explanations are appropriate. For now, though, say the three magic words: “Tell me more!” What has the person giving you feedback observed? What does that person expect or want you to do differently? Don’t assume you know what the other person means…ask questions to clarify your understanding. 

Regard all feedback as an act of generosity. Feedback can help you recognize habitual styles that may need to change. It can help you reexamine how you are living your life. It is a wonderful gift. Consider offering sincere appreciation for to the bearer of feedback, even acknowledging how difficult it may have been to deliver the news. 

Focus on the message not the packaging. There may be times when feedback is given harshly or by someone with whom we struggle, or there is a mixture of truth and personal distortion in what we are told. Forget about what package the message comes in; what is the message? How can you penetrate to the truth contained in the feedback? What can you learn? Contemplation is a critical step to integrate the message. 

Reframe the feedback. When we put feedback in a positive light, negative emotions and responses lose their grip. For example, you could see the feedback on your presentation as a way to improve your chances of promotion, leading you to improve your skills in various ways. Or, the feedback may point you to greater personal success in a position that does not require presentation skills.   

The bottom line: Taking feedback to heart puts you in control and takes you out of helplessness. It may require ruthless self-honesty and a little detective work, but the payoff is high.

Author’s content used under license, © 2008 Claire Communications