How to Make a Habit of Cultivating

People generally don’t like change. On the other hand, one of life’s intrinsic motivators is “Mastery” or the desire to get better at things. That’s why people will spend countless hours practicing and playing an instrument with no intent they will ever make a dime at it professionally. Or, how many people play video games professionally? or golf? You get the idea.

Think about that, though. If I improve at something, isn’t that growth? And, isn’t growth, by definition, equal to change? Well, if I find it motivating to get better at things (or grow = change), but I don’t like change, isn’t that a contradiction? It sure seems like it. Maybe the question is, “what does it mean when people say they don’t like change?”

Several years ago my wife and I were having lunch with another couple who were friends of ours. We were talking about personal growth and development. At one point in the conversation my friend’s wife made a telling comment. She said, “If growth means I have to experience any pain, then I’m fine just the way I am.” Bingo! It’s likely what people don’t like is not the change, but the anticipated “pain” we often associate with growth.

What Pain?

We love the flower or the food we get from plants, the result of the growth. So we cultivate. Cultivating means to prepare the soil for planting and to promote the growth of the plants. We prepare soil by breaking it up and introducing fertilizer. What’s the best fertilizer? To put it nicely, dung. To promote growth we make sure to plant the seed where it will be exposed to rain and sunlight. We also pull up any weeds that may start to grow in the vicinity and we often need to prune the plant as it grows. Pruning is cutting away growth that is not healthy for the plant. Wow! “Breaking up, dung, rain, pulling, cutting away,” Ouch! Growth can involve pain . . . “No pain, no gain” so the saying goes.

The pain for us may come in the form of feedback from co-workers that identifies an area where we need to grow. It may come from a boss in the form of an evaluation or discipline. It could come from a mistake we make that identifies a deficiency. It’s often said that failure is a great teacher. None of these is particularly pleasant. But, they are often the beginning of growth.

Putting it to Work

The Engager Dynamic called Cultivate is all about creating an environment at work that promotes growth. The first step is to make the pain bearable. Really, you’re just changing people’s perception of it. If you make continuous improvement part of your culture, if “we get better” is just “how we do things around here,” then feedback, evaluation, and even failure become normal. When they become normal, they seem less painful and can even become as welcome as eating healthily or a morning workout. To achieve this you must allow freedom for mistakes and failure without retribution as necessary steps of improvement. Failing forward is part of a continuous improvement culture.

Making it a Habit

Once you’ve removed the fear of punishment for mistakes, the environment will be much more conducive to growth. The following three elements will promote learning and development for your team.

  1. Exposure – give your people the opportunity to be exposed to new things. Take someone to a meeting they don’t usually attend. Give them a chance to spend time in another job or department for a day. Introduce them to someone who is an expert in an area of their interest. I put this element first because often this exposure excites a motivation for the next.
  2. Education – having been exposed to something of interest, people are often filled with questions to which they sincerely want answers. Now they’re ready to go to “class.” This may be in the form of online learning, or in-person classes your company offers. Don’t be afraid to spend a little money to send someone to a seminar or class or school if your company offers tuition reimbursement. On the other hand, it may be a simple as letting them spend time with a mentor. NOTE: too often, leaders make the mistake of thinking Education is the totality of Learning and Development. They believe if they send someone to a class and they get a certificate, then they should know everything they need to know. In fact, education is only about 20% of the learning package.
  3. Experiences – here is where you really get the benefit. Focus up to 70% of your development plan on providing opportunities for your people to put into practice what they’re learning. We retain only about 50% of what we see and hear. We retain over 80% of what we experience for ourselves. Give people guided experience at leading meetings. putting together presentations, whatever their learning path is about. As I suggested in my post on Training, if you really want them to know their stuff, let them teach you or someone else what they’re learning. We retain 95% of what we teach.

Weave these elements into the every day routine of your organization or team and you will have a thriving garden of engaged, productive people.

How to Make a Habit of Equipping

Many companies have Policy and Procedure manuals. If you look at a Procedure from the manual, it will usually outline the Summary, Purpose, Scope or Responsible Parties, and Definitions associated with that particular procedure. Then, just before describing the steps in the procedure, it will list the required Tools and Equipment.

Now, imagine you are an employee preparing to do that procedure. You understand everything about the procedure including how critical it is to the business outcomes of your organization. But, you do not have nor can you find the “Required Tools and Equipment” to perform the procedure.

When I was in high school I had a screw put into my shoulder because of a sports injury. On the day my surgeon took the screw out, I was brought into the operating room. I was to be awake during the procedure. My surgeon, I guess he wanted to keep me relaxed with his sense of humor, got onto an intercom and asked, “Could you have maintenance bring me up a Philips-head screw driver, please?” Imagine!

What would it say to your employee about the organization if they didn’t have the proper tools and equipment to perform their work? The Leader who is an Engager makes certain that never happens.

Make It a Habit

In my post on the Engager Dynamic called Equip, I talked about two kinds of equipping, physical and mental. Unless you’re writing a brand new procedure the physical equipment is usually pretty straight forward. You list the required equipment and have processes in place to ensure it is available and in good working order.

Mental equipping means to prepare someone mentally for a particular purpose or task. This may not be as obvious. It would help if you could learn to look at your organization like an outsider.

In acute care hospitals, for example, where “Care Experience” is a critical measure of success, leaders will often sit down in an empty patient room and try looking at it like a patient or a patient’s family member. “What do they see when they sit here?” they ask trying to push through the familiarity bias of seeing the space everyday as a work environment. This helps them understand what they might do to improve the experience of their patients.

No matter what your organization does, looking at it from the perspective of a new employee will be extremely helpful in equipping your people mentally. Beyond the knowledge required to perform their job, what do they need to know about your organization to be successful? For example, they will need to know

  • Where things are (restrooms, cafeteria, break rooms, nearby restaurants for lunch, etc.)
  • Whom to contact (for finance, for Human Resources, for Benefits, for Operations, for IT support, for other technical support)
  • How to get their contact information
  • Cultural do’s and don’ts (what are they in your organization?)

Try to remember your first week. Which of these and which other questions or difficulties did you have? Write them down in order of priority or frequency of use. Now give that “cheat sheet” to each new employee. I suggest handing it to them in person and going over it with them rather than putting it into a “Welcome Packet.” That signals, with a personal touch, that you’re doing everything you possibly can to be sure they are successful as soon as possible. That, in turn, creates within them a subtle challenge to do everything they can to be successful as soon as possible. It’s a Win, Win!

How to Make a Habit of Training

“Excellence is an art won by training and habituation. We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but we rather have those because we have acted rightly. We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act but a habit.” Aristotle

In my post on the Engager Dynamic – Train, I said that one of the mistakes leaders often make, when it comes to training, is to delegate it entirely to someone else. I believe it’s a mistake because there is no better time to make a strong connection with someone than when they’re learning something they care about from you. Employees care about learning what they need to be successful in their new job.

You don’t have to be the one who teaches them everything they need to know to be successful. Pick one thing you’re an expert at and spend some time with employees training them on that.

I know of one company, the largest of its kind in the country, where the CEO takes over an hour to engage with every New Employee Orientation class. His purpose is to share the history of the company which is over 50 years old and to connect with the group on what the company’s mission means to him. It’s genius! It doesn’t hurt that he’s a charismatic salesman, but the head of the company making himself available to it’s newest employees is training of the highest order. This is a leader who is an engager. He makes a connection with every new employee by inspiring them with the company mission.

Make it a Habit

What are the skills that got you to your current role? What are you best at? Chances are they’re things you care about so this should be fun. Pick one of those skills. Now ask yourself these questions:

  1. Why is this skill important?
  2. How did I learn this skill? (Not just who taught you but what steps did    you go through in the learning process?)
  3. What does excellent look like for this skill?

Now you have an outline to a training. Take some notes. Write down why the skill is important, how it connects to the mission/vision of the organization and what it does personally for the people who develop it.

Question number 3 above gives you what educators call a learning objective. Write this down next. When you’re training someone it’s good to let them know ahead of time what they’ll be able to do once they’ve completed the training.

Now, break down the skill into steps. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. Have you ever been in a meeting where they did an icebreaker about giving or following directions? I’ve seen ones where you had to guide a blindfolded person through a maze with only verbal directions, or where you’ve had to write directions to building a Lego toy, or describe to someone how to draw a picture you’re looking at. It can be pretty funny because of how difficult it is to give clear directions.

You might want to try a “wax-on-wax-off” drill to improve this step. Write down the steps involved in brushing your teeth or getting dressed. Try it with several everyday things you do. Now, ask someone else to follow your written directions. Have some fun with it until you’re pretty good at writing clear, step-by-step instructions. Now, go back and re-write the steps to the skill you’re training on.

Put it to Work

You now have the most of a training prepared. You can put it into a Power Point presentation or simply organize your notes. Decide how long it will take to go through what you’ve put together. Figure out what hands-on practice you should provide as part of the training. Is this skill best learned one-on-one or can you train a group?

Now you need (a) trainee(s). Which of the people on your team could use the opportunity to develop this skill? Schedule time with them and go through your training. Receive their feedback and observe them using the skill later. What might you do to improve the training?

Finally, like the leader at the company I mentioned above, you may want to get yourself scheduled into New Employee Orientation as a regular presentation. To build on what Aristotle said, becoming excellent and helping people become excellent will make you a powerful engager.

How to Make a Habit of Setting Expectations

It’s been said, “Two things can destroy any relationship: Unrealistic Expectations and Poor Communication.” That’s especially true if communication is poor about expectations. In my post on expectation setting, I said that one of the most toxic killers of any relationship is unspoken expectations. Why would expectations go unspoken, especially at work? Two possible reasons are

  1.  Assumption – you assume people know the expectations either because “they should be obvious,” or, you believe someone else has already expressed them.
  2. Awareness – you may not be aware that you have a certain expectation.

What Do You Expect?

One of the first steps in making a habit of setting expectations is to identify your expectations. “Expectation” is defined as “A feeling or belief about how successful or good someone or something will (should) be.” So ask yourself, “What are my beliefs about how . . . should be done?” Here’s how you can identify those expectations you may not know you have. Ask yourself, “What do I find myself being irritated about at work? Let’s say it’s meetings. OK. Make a list of what irritates you about meetings. Maybe your list looks like this:

  1. People arriving late
  2. Side conversations distracting people and causing loss of focus
  3. People interrupting each other to make their point
  4. Disrespectful non-verbal communication
  5. People going on tangents
  6. Meetings take too long

You’re irritated about these things because you have an underlying expectation (feeling or belief) about how they should be. Now, turn each of those irritations into a statement of expectation.

Meeting Expectations

  1. Everyone will arrive to meetings on time
  2. Everyone will remain attentive to the discussion on the table
  3. Everyone will demonstrate courtesy during meetings by allowing a speaker to finish their point before speaking
  4. Everyone will demonstrate a respectful attitude
  5. Everyone will remain on topic. Side topics will go onto the parking lot for later discussion
  6. Everyone will adhere to the agenda so meetings will end on time

You may even want to include some accountability signals. For example, if someone does not meet expectation #1 Arrive on time, they have to sing a solo in front of the rest of the group. I’ve seen this work wonders at getting people to meetings on time! For the rest you may simply establish a further expectation that anyone can respectfully remind attendees of the expectation they are violating at any point during the meeting. If it’s your meeting, you certainly can do that.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate

That was pretty easy. Now you have to let people know what the expectations are. You need to communicate. You may want to do the following:

  1. Email team members (or anyone who may attend meetings in your organization) a notice letting them know what the new Meeting Expectations are along with the accountability signals. It would be helpful to include a statement of why you are implementing these expectations. In the interest of respect for people’s time and points of view and for the efficiency of meetings, for example.
  2. Send out agendas for meetings ahead of time. Include the list of Meeting Expectations on every agenda.
  3. Make a poster of the Meeting Expectations and hang one in every meeting room for all to see.

Now you’ve communicated your expectations three different ways. If you model these expectations and consistently use the accountability signals you’ve developed, you will find yourself a lot less irritated at meetings. Even better, you’ll find your teams more engaged and productive when they meet.

Making It a Habit

If your habit has been to be vague and imprecise about expectations, how do you change that habit? First, take a look at my posts on exercising the Do and Don’t muscles and on general Habit Formation. Then, set up your habit change routine. Identify your “whistle” (see Habit Formation). Practice the skill – for example, identify the underlying belief of a frustration and turn it into a statement of expectation. Reward yourself. Repeat on a daily basis.

Not every one of the expectations you discover will be about work and some, you may find, are unrealistic. That’s actually a good thing. Learning to clearly articulate your expectations will help you engage the people who need to know what you expect. It will also help you abandon those expectations that are unrealistic which is definitely good for engagement.

Habit Formation and the Do and Don’t Muscles

We’ve all heard of the character trait called Self-Control. Self-Control has two sides. The most familiar side of Self-Control is (Like our dog friend in the picture) keeping yourself from doing things you would normally do. The other side of this trait is less often thought of as self-control, but it is. It’s making yourself do things you wouldn’t normally do. I think of it as two muscles. I like to call them the “Do Muscle” and the “Don’t Muscle.” Like any other muscle, these can be exercised.

When you’re learning a new sport, you often stretch and flex muscles you haven’t normally used. Many times in ways seemingly unrelated to your sport. For example, lifting weights has nothing to do with the game of football other strengthening muscles you need to play the game. In the same way, you can strengthen your “Do Muscle” and your “Don’t Muscle” in ways seemingly unrelated to the specific habit you’re trying to change. Do you remember “Wax on, Wax off” from the original movie “The Karate Kid?” It’s very much like that.

This quote has been attributed to different people. I don’t think anyone really knows where it came from but it is powerful nonetheless.

Watch your thoughts, for they become . . . habits.
Watch your habits, for they become character.
Watch your character, for it becomes your destiny.”

Exercises For Your Habit Muscles

If you’re thinking about developing, or even changing some habits (and shouldn’t we all?!), Here are two “Wax-on-wax-off” exercises that will help with many habits:

Memorize: This exercise will strengthen your “Do Muscle” and help with many habits because it focuses on their source: thoughts. Find a particularly meaningful passage of literature; it could be Sacred Text, Poetry, a Motivational Writing, anything positive. Simply work at memorizing it word-for-word. Ideally, choose something several paragraphs in length and break it down into smaller sections so that you work on it in bits until you have the whole thing memorized. This will help restructure and re-focus your thinking. It may sound unusual but try it and see.

Wait: What?! Yes . . . Wait. This exercise will strengthen your “Don’t Muscle” and help with many habits because it focuses on a huge source of stress: hurry. When you are in traffic or at the store, get into the longest line on purpose and wait. As human beings we have a unique ability to think about our thinking. Educators call it meta-cognition. While you’re waiting in line or in traffic observe your physical and emotional responses. Observe your thoughts. What are they? Why are they what they are? As you evaluate your responses you will develop the ability to hush the hurry that may be the source of habits you want to change.

You could even work both muscles at the same time by reciting the passage you’re memorizing while you wait (I recommend doing this silently rather than out loud unless you’re alone in your car!). As you practice this over time you’ll notice changes in your responses and maybe even in the way you schedule your day.

Again, these are “Wax on, Wax Off” exercises. These are weight-lifting for your Habit Muscles. They don’t directly develop a specific skill you want to make automatic. But they do develop the self-control that will. Try it and see. I’d love to hear about your results.

Make It A Habit

Have you ever driven home from somewhere, maybe you were deep in thought about a significant event, and when you arrived, you couldn’t remember actually driving home? It’s kind of scary, but it happens. How can that happen? Habit.

If you’ve been driving for over a year, think through how you drive away from your home. What steps do you follow to get into the car and drive away? Chances are, you had to think about it for a minute to even break it down into steps. Then you probably realized that you follow the same steps in sequence each time you drive away. That’s because much of the mechanics of driving (knowing how to make the car go forward or in reverse, how to speed up and slow down and how to stop and steer) have become habit for you.

What is A Habit?

Habits are those things we do without having to think about it. Some habits form simply because of repetition. We do the same thing in the same way enough times and we eventually don’t have to think about it. We just do it.

There are other habits, though, that we form on purpose. In my last post, for example, I mentioned learning to dance, play an instrument and sports. But there is also the military and police. Have you ever heard someone from the military or police or any first responder being interviewed as a hero who said that in the face of danger, “The training kicked in and I just did what I had been trained to do?” That’s all habits.

Anatomy of a Habit

We want to talk about how to form new habits. To do that it’s helpful to understand how habits work. There is a lot of material out there from blogs to scientific research papers. To summarize it, there are three parts to a habit. They are:

Reminder (also called cue or trigger) – The traffic light turns green, for example
Response – You initiate the sequence to start driving again
Reward – You resume progress toward your destination (and the person behind you doesn’t honk)

You know its a habit because, when the light turns green, you don’t have to think, “Check the distance from the car in front of me, have they started moving, release pressure on the break, move my foot to the accelerator, apply just enough pressure to increase speed to match the acceleration of the car ahead …” You just do all that–probably while singing along with that song on the radio or talking on the phone.

When you’re learning skills for sports, for example, often the Reminder is the coaches whistle, the Response is performing whatever skill you’re learning and the Reward is the coach saying, “Good Job!” or correcting you and you getting better.

How Does It Work?

When you are trying to form new personal or work habits, you have to take on the role of coach for yourself. Once you’ve identified the skill you want to make into a habit, you need to find your whistle and reward.

Say you wanted to develop a habit of writing every day. The best advice is to start small. As one writer put it, “Make it so easy you can’t say no.” For example, decide you want to write one sentence every day. That’s the skill you want to develop.

Now, coach, you need a whistle. What will trigger you to work on that skill? How about your morning coffee or tea? OK? So, when you take that first sip, let that be your signal to write one sentence. Great!

Now, what’s in it for you? What’s your reward? Try Jerry Seinfeld’s strategy. Get a large calendar and put it up where you will see it every day. Every time you have your coffee and write a sentence, put a big red “X” through that day. Your reward will be seeing the unbroken chain of “Xs” grow (not to mention all the cool sentences you’ve written). Once you get the habit going you can easily add another sentence, then another and so on until you’re writing a paragraph a day or for a certain period of time every day.

Well done! In coming posts we’ll talk more specifically about developing habits that will make you more of an Engager at work.

How Does A Klutz Become a Dancer?

Our oldest daughter (age 27) describes herself as clumsy. But she’s also a dancer . . . very graceful. One day she was walking through our kitchen and tripped over something. Through her laughter she asked, “How does such a klutz become a dancer?” Interesting question. She has spent years stretching and exercising muscles she didn’t even know she had. She has worked on the barre perfecting movements and posture. She has practiced, rehearsed and performed. And she has taught others to do the same.

If you’ve ever learned to play a sport or an instrument, you’ve done the same thing. You learn a new skill. It feels awkward and unnatural at first. You do drills, seemingly endlessly, or play scales that seem more like drudgery than like making music. You practice and drill, practice and drill until the new skill becomes a habit, becomes second nature. It’s not until the new skill can be effortlessly incorporated into your performance that you become a competitive athlete or a virtuoso.

What Does This Have To Do With Engager Dynamics?

Surely you know that just reading or hearing information from a book or a class or a blog no more makes you an Engager than sitting in the stands at a football game makes you a quarterback. The same principles that apply to learning dance, sports or music apply to learning to be an engager. The Engager Dynamics are skills that must be learned to become a Master Engager (or your people’s best boss). The good news is, they can be learned.

I’m reminded of a couple scenes from the later version of the movie “The Karate Kid.” In the first scene the kid comes into Mr. Han’s home feeling pretty good about himself as an athlete. He shows Mr. Han a few moves as Mr. Han patiently watches. Then Mr. Han asks him to hang up his jacket. He does. Then Mr. Han asks him to take it down. He does. “Put it on”, reluctantly the kid puts it back on, “Take it off”. . . “Hang it up”. . . “Take it down” . . . “Put it on the ground” . . . “Pick it up” . . . all the while the kid is growing frustrated. He doesn’t understand what all this has to do with anything. The scene ends with a montage of the kid doing that routine over and over through sunshine and rain.

In the second scene the kid has had enough and tells Mr. Han he’s done. “They can beat me up if they want to,” he says as he turns to walk out. Mr. Han calls him back and begins to demonstrate to the kid what he has actually been learning. There is a great “fight” sequence toward the end of the scene and I love the expression on the kid’s face as he is realizing what he’s doing . . . automatically, and where it came from . . . the training. At the end of that scene Mr. Han says to the kid, “Kung Fu lives in everything we do xiao dre. It lives in how we put on the jacket, how we take off the jacket. It lives in how we treat people. Everything is Kung Fu.”

VIM and Vigor

Have you ever heard the expression, “Vim and Vigor?” It could be used in a sentence like, “He was full of vim and vigor after that swim.” Both words speak of vitality or effort. Used in this redundant combination the expression intensifies to mean “Energy” or “Strength.” I heard one teacher use VIM as an acronym for

Vision – Can you envision what work would be like if your people were engaged?
Intention – Do you intend to do anything about that vision?
Means – The Engager Dynamics are skills that will get you there.

How does a klutz become a dancer? By working hard, by training herself to do things automatically that, at first, felt awkward or uncomfortable. That’s the same way an average leader becomes an engager, becomes the best boss their people have ever had. That leader will have to work hard, to train themselves to do things automatically that, at first, may seem awkward and uncomfortable.

You may be a Pacifier, an Avoider or even a Dictator right now. But if you act on your intention by practicing the Engager Dynamics you can become an Engager and change the atmosphere and outcomes of your team. In our next few posts we’ll be talking about how to do just that.