“Strengths and Challenges”: The Tragedy of a Workplace Euphemism

By Todd J. Sukol
It is at great cost to our organizations’ missions that we have turned “weakness” into a dirty word and “challenge” into a weak word.

Two of the most powerful concepts to hit mainstream management from the world of psychology and human development in recent years are: “Strengths and challenges” flies in the face of both. In the work of management, words matter. Under the spell of good intentions to spare people’s feelings and a misconception about what makes for constructive criticism, we have created a workplace communication norm that has tragic consequences for individual growth and organizational performance.

People can and do grow. I have seen with my own eyes that it is possible to cultivate work environments that support individual and group efforts at constant improvement. I am blessed to work in such a place now, where people regularly acknowledge strengths, admit mistakes, expose vulnerabilities and accept unvarnished criticism as well as supportive guidance from one another. Caveat for the faint of heart: This environment can be quite uncomfortable at times. We run our shop with an explicit ethic that willingness to endure uncomfortable – even painful — moments along our journey is a small price to pay for the combined value of attaining our collective mission, making strides along our individual growth trajectories and achieving genuine success. What we value most on our team is ongoing performance improvement in service of our collective mission. Imperfection is welcome. Progress is possible, expected and celebrated.

When we design and nurture environments that encourage profound, genuine growth, we don’t need to dress up criticism in euphemisms, deluding ourselves that vague allusions to problems will be met by anything more than the most superficial, incremental improvements. When we focus less on protecting people’s feelings and more on providing the structure, support and accountability that helps individuals thrive, people grow and organizations succeed. You will know you’re on the right track when it becomes more insulting to disguise negative feedback in a disingenuous “feedback sandwich” than it is to come out and say: “Hey, you screwed this up.”

There’s another ethic that goes hand in hand with a culture of constant learning and improvement: Every single person on our team has extraordinary value as a human being and is uniquely qualified to contribute to our organization’s work today.  I’ll be the first to admit that it’s easier to remember that on some days than on others. And yes, it’s easier to see the beauty in some personalities than in others.  This is where positive psychology comes in. I’m not talking about a superficial, Pollyannaish attitude that “everyone is wonderful,” but rather a sustained and rigorous search to identify authentic greatness in each person. Like all really hard work, this pays off in spades. When I make a genuine effort to understand people’s inner character strengths, and let them see mine, they know I’m for real and they tend to respond.

From a positive psychology standpoint, challenges can can be seen not as the opposite of strengths, but rather as what I need to do to make my strengths more impactful. Positive psychology encourages us to expend less effort fixing problems and more identifying, building and deploying inner strengths.  That’s what I call a challenge! The hard work of making our strengths stronger – and making better use of them — is a choice for awesomeness, a choice for life. Why in the world should we settle for relegating the word challenge to euphemistically refer to weaknesses when it can be deployed so powerfully to encourage us to build on our incredible strengths?

In the movie A Few Good Men, Jack Nicolson’s character famously declared “You can’t handle the truth!”  If you saw the movie, you’ll remember that he was dead wrong. You *can* handle the truth. And when you make a genuine effort to understand your colleagues deeply, they can handle the truth too. It may make them uncomfortable at times, but your employees can, and often will, accept your challenge to build their strengths and deploy them in increasingly complex situations. They can also take your strident criticism when appropriate, because they know it comes from a place of respect for their strengths and belief that they are capable of continual growth. We show more respect when we challenge employees to grow strengths and acknowledge weaknesses than when we protect their feelings and settle for mediocrity. As a manager, you owe your team and your organization nothing less.

Breaking Free from Hub & Spokes Syndrome

By Todd J. Sukol
I just returned from two weeks completely disconnected from my office, an all-time high for me, to find our team producing fabulous results in my absence. Yes!

Though I have long been familiar with the ideal that great leaders can walk away without their teams falling apart, it has been a long road for me to get there. I spent years plagued by “hub and spokes syndrome,” always keeping myself at the center of the action. In a well-intended effort to keep things under control, I bought myself only an illusion of control while denying staff the chance to take responsibility, tap their creativity and stretch their skills. For the past eight to 10 years I’ve made a concerted effort to escape this trap. I’m making serious progress, and so can you. My team and I have cultivated an atmosphere of trust, risk taking, open feedback and personal responsibility. We’ve experimented with various ways of providing constructive amounts of structure, support and accountability for everyone on the team. I’ve also been blessed with some incredibly talented and growth oriented team members.

My smooth reentry this week showed me that our collective efforts are working wonderfully. For those of you in management roles, struggling with your team’s performance, I’m here to testify that giving your staff enough room to succeed as well as fail can be a frightening leap of faith, but it works. We’re not talking about neglect here – there’s plenty of work to be done, it is just a different kind of work than you might be used to. When we focus on our people instead of their work, our staff members have the chance to build on their strengths and address their weaknesses.

When we focus on processes instead of emergencies of the day, we give ourselves the breathing room to keep an eye on the big picture, detecting extraordinary opportunities and deadly icebergs alike.

Embracing Complementary Opposites: Learning When to Loosen and When to Tighten

By Todd J. Sukol
Reposted from Mayberg Foundation Blog
http://www.mayberg.org/new-blog/2018/9/5/embracing-complementary-opposites-learning-when-to-loosen-and-when-to-tighten

Recently I was working with colleagues at the Mayberg Foundation, preparing a presentation about our approach to entrepreneurial philanthropy. As we spun out some of the core operating principles we wanted to highlight, two of them struck me at first to be at odds with each other. The first had to do with the ills of over-bureaucratization. The Mayberg Foundation invests in passionate, driven, committed people. We have seen so many times that visionaries often become stifled while working in rigid organizational environments. This destroys their creativity and motivation. In order to innovate, experiment, learn and iterate, social entrepreneurs require nimble, adaptable environments. On the other hand, we are also staunch believers in the importance of proper organizational infrastructure. Those who work closely with me have heard me say time and again that all exciting ventures require three not-so-exciting counterparts in order to amount to anything real: structure, support and accountability. Process counts. As one of our trustees recently put it, “instinct only takes you so far.”

Far from being contradictory, the need for quick, nimble decision making and the need for well defined processes are great examples of complementary opposites, each as true as the other — and each requiring the other. With too little process even the best ideas remain empty dreams forever. With too much process creativity gets squeezed out, destroying the very experimentation that represents the nonprofit and philanthropic sector’s most important role in meeting society’s challenges. The key, as a former advisor of mine told me many years ago, is “knowing when to loosen and when to tighten.”

And that brings me to our Foundation’s own commitment to constant introspection and improvement. Our growth over the past several years has forced us to professionalize and operationalize in order to handle the volume of good work with which we have the privilege of being involved. And at the same time we remain as dedicated as ever to our ability to pivot quickly and shift gears, remaining approachable and open to new ideas. To be sure, this is a tough balance, something that requires constant attention and adaptation. We discuss this openly and frequently among staff and with our trustees and beneficiaries, constantly tweaking our systems, balancing structure and creativity, discernment and openness, strategy and passion.

Renew your heart, engage your head, and speak your truth

By Todd J. Sukol
There are moments when your work in the nonprofit sector will seem futile. You begin to wonder, “Am I really moving the needle or just filling up time and space?”; “Is it worth it?” If you are staff, you may consider abandoning the grind and pursuing a job making more money in the commercial sector. If you are a volunteer or donor, you begin to think the whole enterprise may be a vanity. Are you just fooling yourself, or maybe even being taken for a ride?

These are the times when we need to remember that we are princes and princesses. We possess royal power. Nonprofit work is holy work and it requires our very best selves if we are to succeed. We renew our resolve by looking inward. We need to access our deepest motives for making change. We cannot afford to just go through the motions. Our work requires ever-renewing connection to our internal fire in order to carry us through the hard times until our efforts pay off. And at the same time, we must check the passion of our hearts with the strategic thinking of our minds. We add our best thinking to that of our co-travelers — volunteers and staff alike. We chart new courses, try new approaches, and yes… we put our heads down and persevere with those things that seem to be working.

“The greatest sin of man is to forget that he is a prince — that he has royal power,” said Abraham Joshua Heschel in A Passion for Truth. “All worlds are in need of exaltation,” he continued, “and everyone is charged to lift what is low, to unite what lies apart, to advance what is left behind.” That is the work in which you are engaged. Renew your heart, engage your head, and speak your truth. The work of your hands will carry more power when you do.