How to say no

This is, in part, a public apology to Martijn. I’m sharing it in the hope that the lessons I learned might spare you from some potential humiliation and suffering.

It started with a simple request. Martijn is a student in the Netherlands, and he sent me a message on LinkedIn.

“Currently am I writing a paper about the effect of Working Out Loud on collaborative working and sharing in organizations. If it's possible I really want to ask you a few questions about it…every answer is helpful and we are very grateful for your help and sharing your knowledge with us!”

“What a nice note!” I thought, and replied right away that I would be happy to help him.

“Thanks for your quick and enthusiastic answer! I just sent you the email with our questions.”

That was in March. Then, I had a few business trips, and took a week off with the kids for Spring Break. 

In late April he sent me a gentle reminder. “Do you still have time?” At this point, I was embarrassed. I was also in the middle of a project. I looked again at his questions and figured it would take me an hour to answer them. Not so long that I couldn’t find the time, but long enough that I didn’t do it right away.

More time passed. Week after week, I thought about Martijn and my failure to do what I said. Finally, in June, my mounting guilt drove me to write him an apology and ask if my answers would still be useful. In a gracious reply, he told me they already completed the paper. I felt terrible.

Right around that time, I came across this post from Seth Godin from 2009 titled “Saying No”:

“You can say no with respect, you can say no promptly, and you can say no with a lead to someone who might say yes. But just saying yes because you can’t bear the short-term pain of saying no is not going to help you do the work.”

It made me realize that, like the now-ubiquitous “Yes, and…” exercise, my saying “no” could feel different and lead to better outcomes if I reframed it slightly. Instead of viewing “no” as a rejection of the other person, it could be an opportunity to offer something else, including attention, appreciation, and alternatives. Offering any of those to Martijn would have been better than my ill-thought-out “yes" that only led to disappointment and bad feelings on both sides. 

Next time you receive a request from someone, honor yourself and them by asking these three questions. 

How much effort will this require?

When will I do it?

What else could I do with that time instead?

Take a moment to really think it through before responding, and you’ll both be better off. “No, and…” is always better than “Yes, but I don’t really mean it.”

No and....png

The courage to connect

If only she could see what I see.

We don’t know each other. But even a quick scan made it clear that she’s highly-skilled, has done interesting and relevant work in a company I admire, and is in a location I enjoy visiting and working in.

Her first email to me was lovely and generous. She had been following me and wrote to offer support and assistance - for free - just because she believes in what I'm doing.

Yet she almost didn’t send that message.

“I just finished part 1 of your book which provided me with the courage to reach out to you.”

I re-read that line several times. "The courage to reach out." It struck me that she has so much to contribute and was offering it in such a nice way, and yet she felt constrained, held back by a fear of some kind. I thanked her and shared what I was thinking.

“I'm thrilled that you took the time to write your note which was both kind and generous. Isn't it fascinating that we hold back even when we have such gifts to offer? If we could change that mindset and unlock more such gifts, the world and workplace would be better for everyone.”

We continued our email exchange (she’s also witty and a good writer), and I look forward to speaking with her about her work and to ask for her ideas and opinions about mine. Given her experience, I can easily imagine a wide range of collaboration opportunities. 

What about you? Is there something holding you back from reaching out to someone? Something preventing you from making the contributions and connections you want to make?

There are so many people who could benefit from all you have to offer. Developing the courage to share it just takes practice

Sketch by Janine Kirchhof -  janinekirchhof.com  &  @ THE_HR_GIRL

Sketch by Janine Kirchhof - janinekirchhof.com@THE_HR_GIRL

Happy New Year! Announcing WOL Circle Guides v4.5 

In a New Year’s post five years ago, I wrote that one of the best resolutions you could make is to invest in yourself, to give yourself the time and the space - the permission - to develop relationships and skills that matter.  

Since then, I’ve been developing Working Out Loud Circles as a method for doing that, and Circles have spread to over 40 countries. Today, I’m publishing a new and improved version of the WOL Circle Guides to make the method even easier and more effective. 

What’s new?

Thanks to the feedback from people who have already been in a Circle, I’ve been able to refine the guides and make this version the best one so far.  The biggest changes include moving the exercises related to habit development earlier in the process, providing better examples, and updating several of the exercises and additional reading. There are also improvements to the flow, the writing, and the formatting. 

Despite the changes, Circles already in progress should be able to use the new guides right away. Also, a German translation should be ready over the next few weeks.

Customizing WOL Circles for your organization

The WOL Circle Guides are free, and are issued under a license called the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.  (It means you can use the material and share it as-is, but you can’t change it or offer it as part of any for-fee product or service without explicit written permission.) Being free makes it easy for individuals and organizations to experiment and experience the benefits for themselves. Yet as Circles spread in an organization, or as the method is integrated into existing programs like on-boarding and talent development, many organizations want to tailor the guides.

Now there’s an additional license, available for a fixed fee, that allows you to do this. In the past year, I've worked with customers who want to include their own goals, technology, examples, and brand into the guides. So if, say, you’re using WOL Circles to help new joiners be more connected and productive, custom guides can make it easy for those new employees to learn your digital tools while they discover people and content related to their job. If you’re interested in customizing the guides, contact me at john.stepper@workingoutloud.com.

Other ways to make it easier

In addition to upgrading the Circle Guides, I’m working on a WOL Video Coaching Series and Circle Journal that will be available in the coming months. The video series gives you convenient access to all that’s in the guides plus coaching tips to help ensure you make progress. The Journal gives you a single place to do the exercises and capture your learning throughout the process, making it easier to reflect on how far you’ve come.

I welcome and appreciate your feedback on any of these materials and ideas, and will use it to keep improving the method. I hope you join a Circle this year. Here’s some gentle encouragement from another New Year's resolution post I wrote two years ago called “This Year I Will…”

“One way to make a difference this year is to form a Working Out Loud Circle. I’m getting more and more mail from people about how their Circle empowered them, liberated them. Just this week, a woman told me her circle "had an enormous impact on my life.”
Yet it’s such a simple process. You write down a goal, share it with a small trusted group, and take a few steps over 12 weeks to build relationships with people who can help you.
Deciding to form a Circle might just be the best New Year’s resolution you ever made. What’s holding you back that you might be able to change?
Where might you go?"
Happy 2018.jpg

That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German

It began like any other annual offsite meeting. Three hundred of us from our division - “the top management” we called ourselves - gathered to experience lush accommodations, good food and wine, and lots of presentations. The mood, as was typical for these conferences, was a strange cocktail of cynicism and feigned enthusiasm.

Then they announced the guest speaker: Ben Zander, conductor of The Boston Philharmonic Orchestra and author of The Art of Possibility. I had just finished the book and it helped me see that the lenses I used to view the world could change everything. (It’s still one of my favorite books of all time.) I wondered what he would say.

“Shining eyes”

He played the piano as he told us stories, connecting his experiences as a conductor with leadership lessons in a beautiful way. 

"Now, I had an amazing experience. I was 45 years old, I'd been conducting for 20 years, and I suddenly had a realization. The conductor of an orchestra doesn't make a sound. My picture appears on the front of the CD —
(Laughter)
But the conductor doesn't make a sound. He depends, for his power, on his ability to make other people powerful. And that changed everything for me. It was totally life-changing. People in my orchestra said,"Ben, what happened?" That's what happened. I realized my job was to awaken possibility in other people. And of course, I wanted to know whether I was doing that. How do you find out? You look at their eyes. If their eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. 
Right. So if the eyes are shining, you know you're doing it. If the eyes are not shining, you get to ask a question. And this is the question: who am I being that my players' eyes are not shining? We can do that with our children, too. Who am I being, that my children's eyes are not shining? That's a totally different world.”

The room was quiet. You could almost feel each of us “top managers” reflecting on whether people in our organizations had shining eyes, and whether we were the kind of leaders who could make that happen.

“Ode to Joy”

Then, as a means of having us experience something we wouldn’t think possible, he said he was going to have all 300 of us sing “Ode to Joy” in German. Nervous laughter rippled throughout the room as he handed out the lyrics, written phonetically so we could all pronounce them. We shot embarrassed glances at each other like school children trying to avoid the teacher’s gaze.

He began conducting us, and a few people mumbled the first words. He immediately stopped us and had us try again, and again, exhorting each of us to reach deeper. Soon, infected by his energy and enthusiasm, we gradually shed our egos and fears and self-imposed limits. We let go - and we sang.

“FROY-NER SHER-NER GETTER-FOON-KEN”

We were…doing it! We looked at each other with amazement. We drew confidence from each other and sang louder. Whether or not we knew German, whether or not we were good singers, we were SINGING! 

At that moment an energy passed through us, a resonance of some kind. We were, perhaps for the first time as a management team, literally “in synch” and “on the same wavelength.” The cynicism melted away and the enthusiasm became genuine. We had tapped into the art of possibility - a sense of capability and wonder and joy. It was beautiful.

When the music stops

Throughout the rest of our conference, we talked about that moment. Then the meeting ended. We went back to our offices and our habits, and the feelings of common purpose and possibility faded. I was disappointed, but that image stayed with me, as did something Ben Zander said at the end of his talk.

“Now, we're all about to end this magical, on-the-mountain week, we're going back into the world. And I say, it's appropriate for us to ask the question, who are we being as we go back out into the world? And you know, I have a definition of success. For me, it's very simple. It's not about wealth and fame and power. It's about how many shining eyes I have around me."

Who are you being? How many shining eyes are around you? It’s taken me a decade to understand that you don’t change your answers to these questions in one magical moment, but with practice over months and years and for the rest of your life. .

That time we all sang “Ode to Joy” in German? It was more than a a nice way to inspire an audience. It was a glimpse of the way things could be. 

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

Photo credit: Alexander Kluge

Taking off the mask

Imagine you’re in a large room full of people you don’t know. You feel slightly awkward, unsure where to start, as you continue to look for familiar faces. Then, amidst an attempt to make small talk with someone, you discover you have something in common, and you grab onto it like a rope connecting the two of you.

Maybe you shared a small thing, like where you were born or went to school or that you have children of the same age. Or maybe it’s something you experienced, like losing someone to a disease, or suffering from one yourself. That exchange, that bond, can fundamentally change how you relate to each other. 

Now imagine that room is actually your company, full of thousands of people from across the world. 

The mask we wear

“The fact that I’m me and no one else is one of my greatest assets.” wrote Haruki Murakami. But at work, most of us feel compelled to hide behind a mask of cool professionalism. As a result, our “greatest asset” is reduced to an impersonal sameness, and the chances for human connection are greatly reduced.

You needn’t wear all your personal information on your sleeve or announce it in every meeting. You just have to be your whole self, willing and open to offer what makes you you. When you feel you can do that, you experience what neuroscientists might call an “internal resonance” or “coherence.” producing a sense of confidence and clarity.

You've almost certainly felt the negative effects of "putting on a good face" at work, despite what was happening around you and inside you.

A simple example at work

I wrote recently about a workshop with 550 engineers. We formed them into 110 groups of five people, and this time we tried something different: we started by asking them to list 10 facts about themselves. I offered my own example.

“Your facts can include things that describe you. For example, I live in New York City. I have five children. My wife is Japanese. I’m a vegetarian. My grandparents emigrated from Italy.
They can also be things you’ve experienced, both pleasant and unpleasant. I had a wonderful holiday in Provence. I was laid off. My mother was a diabetic.
List ten things that make you you.”

After a short period of reflection and list-making, we asked them to share some of their facts within their small groups, looking for connections and things they found remarkable. The energy in the room changed. It was no longer 550 engineers with specific titles in a big company. It was 550 human beings, each with their own story. The trust and interaction flowed more freely, more naturally.

There’s a longer version of this exercise in Week 5 of a Working Out Loud Circle. It’s called “So much to offer!” It’s there to help people experience that it’s okay to be yourself at work, that sharing who you are can be a kind of contribution, and the basis of a meaningful connection with someone.

We don’t need to shed our individuality when we come to the office. “People are our greatest asset” only if we let them be real people, only if we let ourselves be our true selves.

"Mask" by Henry Moore

"Mask" by Henry Moore

A tale of two inboxes

Imagine you’re on holiday and you think about checking email from work. How does that make you feel? How do you deal with that feeling?

I’m off this week, so this was more than a thought exercise. Over several decades, I have learned to dread email while I’m on vacation. When I ignored it, my background stress would accumulate and burst into the foreground. When I checked it often, there was bound to be something upsetting that would color my mood for the day. Gradually, I developed a system whereby I would hide my phone and limit my email-checking to specific times, but even that didn’t eliminate my anxiety.

This week was different. As I thought about the mails I had received, they were almost all positive and helpful. For sure, some involved “work” - follow-ups or requests or some kind of issue - yet even those emails were friendly and nicely-worded. “It’s odd,” I told my wife, “but I actually look forward to checking email now.” 

Of course, I’m working for myself for over a year, but I don't think that explains the difference. Companies aren't necessarily bad and being independent isn't necessarily good. Instead, I think the difference between inboxes isn’t due to whether you’re an employee or not, but due to the culture of your organization, and how people feel about being a part of it. 

I claim that even in big companies we can learn to relate to each other - and to ourselves - with more compassion and generosity, with more kindness. We can discover how much more effective and fulfilled we can be. It requires behavioral change at scale which makes it difficult - and yet that’s something I’m confident we can accomplish. 

My old inbox used to contain things done to me, and my new inbox seems to contain things done for me. Which inbox would you rather have?

A teacher on the train to Munich

Her name was Helga. She looked to be in her late fifties or so, and she had a big pleasant smile and shining eyes. I could tell she was friendly early on when, shortly after we departed, I closed my eyes and she said she'd wake me up when we got to Munich. After my short nap, we started to talk. 

She told me she teaches young children, from first through eighth grade, sometimes high school. She loves watching them develop, she said, and feels attached to them. She told me about one girl who invited her to her first communion and later her confirmation at church. The young girl told Helga, “When I get married I will invite you.” Two decades later, an invitation arrived in the mail, and Helga went. "They become attached to me too," she said. 

“Scherben bringen Glück”

As part of the ceremony, she told me people would bring porcelain plates or bowls and break them. She said the German expression was “Scherben bringen Glück” and we struggled together to come up with an English translation: “Shards bring good luck.”

She said it always reminded her of something that happened when she was a child. She was five years old, washing and drying dishes by hand together with her grandmother. (“There were no machines,” she said. “It was a different time.”)

Helga dropped a cup and it smashed on the floor. Her grandmother reassured her. “Don’t worry,” she said. “It’s okay. Scherben bringen Glück.

Lessons for a lifetime & beyond

Helga told me how her grandmother encouraged her to keep trying. “If you don't work, you make no faults.” Of course, she said, you may avoid mistakes if you don’t try things, but that is not the way to live a life. Helga said she often told her students stories about her grandmother. “The children love them.” 

I thought of how many things I avoided in my life because I was afraid to “make faults.” I thought of how the spirit of Helga’s grandmother lives on in her and, through her stories, in her students. 

The train rolled on. We talked about Helga’s three sons and her two year-old granddaughter. I showed her photos of my own children. As we pulled into Munich and said our goodbyes, she told me, “I'm sure you’re a lovely father.” 

“Thank you,” I said. “I know you’re a wonderful teacher.” 

It can be as easy as this

Peter was at a work event, and needed information on a topic that was unfamiliar to him. He had done some research online, and now he was looking for advice.

If you were Peter, what would you do next?

Giving & receiving

You might keep on searching and reading. That’s not a bad strategy. Or you might ask some people at the event or send a few emails to people you think might know something. Instead, Peter posted a simple question on a community site related to the topic. The topic was Working Out Loud. 

“At this very moment I am facilitating a networking event around #NewWork at Deutsche Bahn. One specific session just strived to understand #WOL. Any help or advise is highly appreciated. We have the rest of today plus tomorrow and would love to get started in that timeframe. What immediate first steps would you recommend?”

Within a few minutes he had responses from people in three different cities and companies. Within a few hours, people from Deutsche Bank, Bosch, and BMW as well as independent consultants all offered suggestions and asked questions. As the world turned, more people joined from five different countries. Many more people viewed and reacted to the post.

One of the commenters actually drove to the event to bring Peter a copy of Working Out Loud.

Peter started the discussion by simply offering his attention and vulnerability - “We’re working on this and interested in what you do. Could you help us?” - and the community responded with specific, constructive advice, encouragement, and even a sense of humor.

Maybe it ends there, with a nice discussion. Or maybe Peter tapped into a valuable practice he can spread inside his company and a global network that can help him - all with a simple contribution. It can be as easy as this.

Simon Terry, consultant and leader of Change Agents Worldwide, summed up what many of us in the discussion were thinking.

I thought work wasn’t supposed to be like this

I still remember a response to one of my earliest posts, one about finding meaning and fulfillment at work. “You’re nuts,” she wrote. “People go to work for money. They go home for meaning and fulfillment.”

I’ve thought about that for years. What if she was right, and I was encouraging people to try anddiscover something that work simply wasn’t designed to offer? How cruel that would be.

Fast forward several years. I’m laying on a yoga mat in an office in a large manufacturing company in Germany. A group of us had worked together for the last three days, and much of it was quite intense. Before my trip, I happened to know that one of them was a yoga instructor. (We were connected on Instagram and other channels, even those of us who barely knew each other.) I half-kiddingly suggested that we have a class after work on Friday. Others responded, and there we were, in a wide array of yoga attire, on our mats among the chairs and flip charts. The class was beautiful, almost spiritual. Afterwards, we hugged each other goodbye.

This kind of connection happened throughout the week. Instead of just small talk in between meetings, we talked about personal aspirations and life experiences. We discovered shared interests as well as new possibilities for how we might collaborate and innovate. By deepening relationships, we changed the very nature of the work we were doing as well as what we might do together in the future.

Oh, and we ate together and laughed. A lot. 

It's true that these particular people are extraordinary. And yet I’ve had similar experiences with other people in other cities in other companies. I’ve observed tremendous generosity and vulnerability, creativity and intelligence, in their work with me as well as with their colleagues. It's those behaviors that lead to meaning and fulfillment.

Once we shed the facade of cool professionalism, we were able to develop a sense of relatedness that opened up all sorts of wonderful possibilities. 

It wasn't just work or just personal. It was human - and it was beautiful.

The best medicine

Did you know that you're 30 times more likely to laugh if you're with somebody else than if you're alone? Why is that?

Yesterday, I came across an example of how laughter spreads. It’s a video my German friends might be familiar with, as it was taken by an improv group on the Berlin Metro in 2011. It starts when a few actors look at their phone and begin laughing. Then several passengers start to smile. Within minutes, laughter has spread to people throughout the entire car. 

I couldn't help but laugh when I watched it. Since it was uploaded, over 7 million people have seen it , and there were numerous articles about it in the press.

“The popularity of the video may help to dispel the belief that Germany is a humorless nation. In a poll conducted earlier this year, More than 30,000 people in 15 European countries were asked to rank the nations with the worst sense of humor and Germany came out on top.”

There’s an old expression that “laughter is the best medicine.” Now we know that positive actions and emotions aren’t just good for you alone, but can be a prescription for helping others, too. A staggering array of behaviors spread through social networks, and the relatively new fields of social neuroscience and interpersonal neurobiology are helping us understand how this works. 

Maybe, as one commenter wrote, you want to “bring a sense of openness and kindness to the working life.” Or maybe you want to do something to change "the current climate of meanness and separation from our common humanity.”

What behavior will you choose to spread?