Donna Rae Smith

Fear. We all know what it feels like: The rising sensation that you might not be strong enough for what you’re about to face. Unlike in nature, where animals can quickly size up their likelihood of survival, our ability to recognize a threat and weigh our chances isn’t always so refined. In the business world, leaders often flee when what they really need to do is move forward.

Ego is also at play. Leaders often choose to stick with the plan, even when it isn’t working, rather than make changes and risk the consequences.

This isn’t a new phenomenon and yet the cost of fear is constantly rising. We live in a world where the pace of change is ever accelerating and the future is difficult to predict. As leaders, we’re often forced to make decisions without all the information we want or need — and yet timely action is a must.

What’s required is agility and confidence — the ability to look change in the face, decide how to act and move boldly in that direction. Leaders who wallow in fear get stuck in place. They suffer from “analysis paralysis” — waiting so long to make decisions that it’s too late to act. In order to be effective, leaders must push past the paralysis and be willing to take risks and face change head-on.

Here are a few ways to begin the process of breaking through the fear of change:

Admit you don’t know everything

The CEO of Manco, Jack Kahl, used to have a famous Socrates quote on his door: “I know one thing, that I know nothing.” Jack set the tone for the organization by continually driving home the message that everyone, beginning with him, was to be constantly learning, experimenting and improving. 

 

Start mild before wild

Risk-averse businesses don’t have to go from zero to 60 overnight. They can begin by identifying mild strategies for increasing their risk exposure and move on as they become more comfortable.

The key is this: Whatever change you make, it has to be observably different. You must define in advance the impact you’re seeking to achieve so that you can measure whether you reached it. If you’re the only one who can see or feel the change, it isn’t significant enough. In order to accelerate results, your action must be observable to other people.

 

Question your motives

Even when teams or companies are in trouble, processes that are no longer doing any good are held on to. This happens because leaders want to prove that they’re right, rather than experiment with something new. If you find yourself continuing to push stale processes, ask yourself why.

 

Try on different lenses

No two people see the world in exactly the same way. As comfortable as we get seeing things our own way, the fact is we need to seek out the perspectives of others. Great innovations and change initiatives have begun precisely that way — when the circle of ideas was expanded to include people who might not otherwise have been consulted.

 

The ability to respond effectively in the face of change is a learned habit. And like any habit, it requires consistent practice over time to take root. Take the first step by experimenting with these strategies. Over time, your agility and confidence in the face of fear will undoubtedly grow.

 

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger and columnist for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc.®, a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the worlds most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com.

 

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Thirty years ago, motivated by a desire to be healthier, I quit smoking. That change had an unanticipated outcome that altered the course of my life: I learned that I had the ability to break a habit and replace it with a new one.

That might sound simple, but for me it was transformative. It extended far beyond a physical act and changed the way I thought about not only myself, but also the world around me. 

I started by replacing smoking with new habits — “positive addictions.” If I wanted a cigarette, I would brush my teeth instead, or run up and down a flight of stairs. Eventually, I took up running. In a sense, I was running from a former self to a new self. I came to see myself as someone who could change, no matter how unlikely that change had once seemed.

While we often discuss shifting paradigms in work, we often forget about the need for shifting our individual paradigms. We must actively reshape the mental models we have that tell us what is and isn’t possible.

These models so often condition failure. Deep ruts form in our thinking that lead us to do things as we’ve always done them. Creating new habits helps to steer us into new territory.

When we think about harmful habits, or habits that are limiting our growth, we might think of things like smoking, overeating or disorganization. But there are countless others that can be holding us back.

 

Out with the old, in with the new

Here are steps for overcoming an unwanted habit and replacing it with a beneficial one.

1.      Identify the triggers

All of our habits have triggers, the hidden motivations that make us engage in the habit. In my case, I smoked when I was stressed, upset or tired. I believed that smoking helped me feel better.

 

2. Recognize the tradeoffs

I was “trading” stress for a cigarette, or so I thought. Of course smoking didn’t solve anything — it didn’t get at the root of my stress, just momentarily alleviated it. Once you know what you’re trading, ask yourself — is it worth it?

 

3. Define the possible

In order to quit smoking, I needed to have a vision of my smoke-free life. Who would I be as a non-smoker? What was the value and benefit to me of being smoke-free? I saw my future self as a healthy, vibrant, energetic person. I seized that image and held on to it when I was tempted to smoke.

 

4. Identify a new habit to replace
the old one

When I had an urge to smoke I replaced that urge by doing something else to occupy my mind, such as running. Find a new habit that will make you a better person.

 

5. Strengthen the new habit

To become comfortable with a new habit will take time. It’s unrealistic to think you will unlearn one way of doing things and learn a new way overnight. It takes repeated and renewed effort, but with practice you will become more confident.

 

6. Reward yourself

We all appreciate recognition of a job well done. In this case though, don’t wait for someone else to congratulate you. Do it yourself. Set goals and then reward yourself when you meet them. ●

 

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger and columnist for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc.®, a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com.

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Thursday, 15 August 2013 08:42

Five proven habits to take control of stress

“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” — William James, American philosopher and psychologist

In an increasingly stressful world, William James’ remarks are just as accurate and relevant today as they were when he said them more than a century ago. We face countless stressful forces, most of them beyond our control — changing market conditions, economic uncertainty, new laws and regulations, and competition, to name just a few.

Confronted with circumstances and situations that we can’t change, our only hope is to affect what we can — our own thoughts and actions. Only by managing ourselves can we exert some control over our physical and mental health.

The first step is to change the way we think about stress. Rather than trying to take control by accomplishing more, we need a different tack — getting back to basics, with time-proven strategies like slowing down, truly connecting and living in the moment.

Why do these work? Because they tap into our fundamental need for purpose and meaning and help us remember what really matters. They allow us to put stress into perspective and truly gain control — not of what’s happening around us, but of ourselves. 

Stay connected.

For most of us, staying connected means having around-the-clock access to our phones and email. However, nothing replaces face-to-face conversation, where you’re intently focusing on the person next to you and they’re doing the same. That kind of connectedness is a need we all share and it can’t be replaced with a screen or monitor.

Rather than constantly emailing the colleague next door, think about having more in-person, direct communication. Likewise, make a personal commitment to carve out meaningful time for the important people in your life.

Slow down. 

The last thing you want to do when you’re stressed out is to slow down. But the reality is that even a short break for quiet and relaxation will reap you benefits tenfold.

Even 20 minutes to go for a walk on a tree-lined street or to sit on a park bench makes a difference.

Whatever you choose, making time to slow down won’t set you back — it will actually refresh you and give you more energy.

Have faith. 

Having faith means different things for different people. If you have faith in a higher being, then you know it’s a source of strength.

Making time to read short meditations or prayers can center and rejuvenate you. Others find faith in themselves or in modern philosophers.

In either case, it’s important to find a source that fuels you when the going gets tough.

Find your fire. 

A sure-fire way to relieve stress is to focus on something you truly love and feel passionate about. When you’re engaged in an activity you deeply enjoy, everything else recedes into the background.

Make time for activities you love and recapture that childhood enthusiasm.

Laugh it off. 

Research suggests that laughing has healthful effects. But we don’t need scientists to verify that laughing feels good. Let your guard down and laugh when the situation calls for it.

If you can’t laugh at your natural surroundings, then create a laugh break by watching or reading something you find funny. Or do an activity that’s sure to make you laugh — like miniature golf, bowling, an amusement park or karaoke. However you do it, make laughter and humor a routine part of your life, not a special occasion.

 

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger and columnist for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc.®, a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com.

 

Earlier this year, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg set off a renewed debate on an old question: Why aren’t more women in executive positions? The answer you get depends on whom you ask. Some say it’s outright discrimination, while others argue that it’s an aggressive, inflexible culture that limits women’s advancement or drives them to opt out.

Who is the CEO?

For anyone who questions that there is a problem, the evidence is quite clear. While research shows a correlation between a company’s financial performance and the number of women in its governing body, women held just 14.4 percent of executive officer positions at Fortune 500 companies in 2010.

More than a quarter of companies had no women in an executive officer position. And 48 percent of Fortune 1000 companies had one or no women on their boards in 2012.

As an entrepreneur and business owner for 30 years, I know firsthand many of the challenges that women face in the workplace. One of the most pervasive issues is this: a deeply entrenched belief that productivity and effectiveness are defined by the number of hours you spend at the office.

Any executive today knows that working at least 60 hours a week is standard. While technology has simplified our lives in many ways, it has also complicated it. We’re now expected to be on call 24 hours a day, seven days a week, ready to respond to requests at any hour of the day or night.

At most companies, the rewards go to those who are willing to put work above everything else, and to do it over the long haul. Those expectations are coupled with a complex and ever-changing global environment that make us — women and men — more fearful and stressed out than ever before.

With that kind of prevailing climate in many companies, it’s no surprise that people looking for a sense of equilibrium choose to leave.

Gender representation needs

Until productivity and effectiveness are redefined to allow and encourage contributions of varying levels, we’ll never achieve fair gender representation. Even worse yet, we’ll never get the best we can from each person. We need to redefine successful leaders not as those who work through the night, but as those who are empathic and balanced, those who cultivate productive and healthy people and work environments.

Eventually companies will have to heed the call to re-examine their work cultures, asking themselves hard questions about who is best served by maintaining the status quo. Finding a balance between work and life is gaining increasing importance and can’t be ignored.

Find the right balance

In a global study conducted this year by LinkedIn, entitled “What Women Want @Work,”  63 percent of respondents defined success at work as “finding the right balance between work and personal life.” To the question, “Would you like a more flexible work environment,” 65 percent answered that flexible working would better enable them to manage career and family.

If you’re wondering how to get started, open-mindedness and creativity are essential. You have to be willing to throw out the old to bring in the new. That means a willingness to redefine roles and responsibilities, focusing on what needs to get done rather than how it gets done.

People don’t need to work overtime or full time to be productive, and responsibilities can be divided in innumerable ways.

We must begin by deeply examining our prevailing notions of work and being willing to consider that people can be more productive and effective if we create more flexible, empathic work environments. Only then will we create truly productive, efficient, profitable businesses that add value to the well-being of individuals, families and communities.

 

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger and columnist for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc.®, a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com

Friday, 31 May 2013 20:00

Are your messages getting lost?

Remember playing telephone as a kid? You would sit in a circle with friends and whisper a message into the ear of the child next to you. By the end, when the last kid would announce the message out loud, everyone would break into laughter: It never bore any resemblance to the original message.

Is that still happening to you? Are your messages getting lost in a modern-day game of telephone?

I see it in companies all the time. The CEO knows the message — in this case the business’ vision and strategies — but it gets terribly distorted as it gets passed along and it becomes no laughing matter.

There are reasons why messages get lost.

No. 1, managers often don’t understand or even hear the message or its importance. Its relevance to their work hasn’t been explained to them.

No. 2, the noise of stress can deafen the message. Today, employees are running at breakneck speed in order to stay competitive. The priority is on responding to immediate needs and putting out fires. Under stress, many managers can’t hear the message or can’t prioritize communicating it.

No. 3, competitive work environments mean personal job security comes first and the company’s long-term success second. We make decisions that are in our best interests, not always thinking whether they’re aligned with the company’s goals. When that happens, the message gets sidelined in favor of short-term gain.

In order for the message to stay intact, it needs to be communicated loudly and clearly over and over again, and everyone in the circle needs to be responsible for passing it on accurately. Don’t wait until the end to realize the message has been mangled.

Articulate the vision and strategy.

The importance of this can’t be overstated. The vision and strategies — your message — should be presented to people over and over again, not just in words but visually.

Visuals resonate with people and make the message stick. Develop a visual representation of the company’s vision and display it prominently throughout the organization.

Generate confidence and commitment.

In order for people to pass the message on accurately, they need to know, “What does this mean for me?” and “Why should I care?”

Today’s competitive work environments are making people incredibly anxious and concerned about the future. People want reassurance about their own futures and their company’s future. Perhaps more than ever before, they need inspiring visions for the future that they can take confidence in.

Give them a vision they can support and make it clear that the company needs them on board in order to succeed. Let them know how they will benefit if the company reaches its goals. Once they believe in the company’s future and their role in it, they’ll be committed to the message.

Accept accountability.

Leaders must accept personal accountability for communicating clearly. Each leader must commit to communicating in ways that align with the original message. No matter how tense things get, the message can’t get dropped or distorted at will by one leader. If a leader or leaders stray, the situation must be addressed immediately. Otherwise, the strategy has no teeth and will not be trusted.

Invest in management.

Commend leaders who communicate well and work closely with those who need more help. Remember that this is a process. In order for it to work, people will need mentoring and coaching.

Break it down.

Our high-pressure work environments mean that people will want to throw out long-term strategies when the going gets tough. In order to prevent that, work with managers to create daily, weekly and monthly priorities that meet short and long-term goals.

 

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger and columnist for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com.

Long work hours, heightened competition, demands for efficiency, and new laws and regulations are all challenges faced by executive leaders today. It often feels like we’re running up the down escalator — constantly in motion, exerting excessive energy with our adrenaline pumping just to get through a normal day.

After awhile, the demands take their toll. In addition to serious potential health consequences — including heart disease, the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. — stress has behavioral side effects, making us anxious or depressed.

The result of that chronic stress can severely compromise our ability to lead. It affects not only each of us personally but also the teams we lead and the organizations we run. When we acknowledge the power we have over our people and businesses, this subject takes on real urgency.

Check your emotions

Emotions are contagious, so as leaders we need to be vigilant about the emotions we’re passing on to those around us. Are you carrying fear and stress to those around you?

Imagine different scenarios: a boss who responds to stress and fear by acting aggressively toward employees and becoming overcontrolling, a leader who appears calm but buries his head in the sand, or a leader who remains calm and responsive.

The first two will create fearful, stressed out or frustrated employees whose performance is stunted or paralyzed, while the latter creates an atmosphere of trust and confidence, where people are encouraged to act. Where would you rather work?

We can start by paying attention to the emotions we’re passing on to others and honestly assessing whether we’re contributing to their productivity or inhibiting it. If it’s the latter, we have to find ways to defuse our stress — through exercise, relaxation or levity — and avoid taking it out on those around us.

Be honest

The ability to speak openly and honestly is a critical leadership behavior. If a team member isn’t performing up to par, avoiding a conversation only increases ineffectiveness and raises anxiety.

When we find the courage to have honest conversations, we create a climate of transparency and openness — necessary elements of healthy and productive workplaces.

At the same time, we relieve stress and anxiety by being proactive and confronting tough situations head on.

Stay connected

Being connected through devices means we’re always available.

But are we? Being available to everyone all the time can leave us unavailable at any one time. It’s hard to focus on the conversation you’re in when you’re constantly ready to respond to the outside world.

We can enhance our leadership by demonstrating that we’re present and connected in the moment, in face-to-face conversations. Those human interactions make us better leaders and reduce stress.

Be open to learning

A hallmark of effective leadership is openness to learning. Alvin Toffler, author of “Future Shock,” said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

As leaders, we’re besieged by information, and the contexts in which we work are changing daily. That’s why it’s more important than ever to be not only willing to learn but eager to learn as well.

Emotions are like an on-off switch to learning. If you’re resistant and fearful, you’re in “off” mode, and it will be nearly impossible to learn. If you face new situations as opportunities for growth with an attitude of willingness and curiosity, you get turned “on.”

Our leadership ability is directly correlated to our openness to learning. Once you’re “on,” learning isn’t a source of stress and anxiety but is a source of energy and creativity. ?

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger and columnist for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com.

Tuesday, 30 April 2013 20:00

Emotions are contagious

Long work hours, heightened competition, demands for efficiency, and new laws and regulations are all challenges faced by executive leaders today. It often feels like we’re running up the down escalator — constantly in motion, exerting excessive energy with our adrenaline pumping just to get through a normal day.

After awhile, the demands take their toll. In addition to serious potential health consequences — including heart disease, the No. 1 cause of death in the U.S. — stress has behavioral side effects, making us anxious or depressed.

The result of that chronic stress can severely compromise our ability to lead. It affects not only each of us personally but also the teams we lead and the organizations we run. When we acknowledge the power we have over our people and businesses, this subject takes on real urgency.

Check your emotions

Emotions are contagious, so as leaders we need to be vigilant about the emotions we’re passing on to those around us. Are you carrying fear and stress to those around you?

Imagine different scenarios: a boss who responds to stress and fear by acting aggressively toward employees and becoming overcontrolling, a leader who appears calm but buries his head in the sand, or a leader who remains calm and responsive.

The first two will create fearful, stressed out or frustrated employees whose performance is stunted or paralyzed, while the latter creates an atmosphere of trust and confidence, where people are encouraged to act. Where would you rather work?

We can start by paying attention to the emotions we’re passing on to others and honestly assessing whether we’re contributing to their productivity or inhibiting it. If it’s the latter, we have to find ways to defuse our stress — through exercise, relaxation or levity — and avoid taking it out on those around us.

Be honest

The ability to speak openly and honestly is a critical leadership behavior. If a team member isn’t performing up to par, avoiding a conversation only increases ineffectiveness and raises anxiety.

When we find the courage to have honest conversations, we create a climate of transparency and openness — necessary elements of healthy and productive workplaces.

At the same time, we relieve stress and anxiety by being proactive and confronting tough situations head on.

Stay connected

Being connected through devices means we’re always available.

But are we? Being available to everyone all the time can leave us unavailable at any one time. It’s hard to focus on the conversation you’re in when you’re constantly ready to respond to the outside world.

We can enhance our leadership by demonstrating that we’re present and connected in the moment, in face-to-face conversations. Those human interactions make us better leaders and reduce stress.

Be open to learning

A hallmark of effective leadership is openness to learning. Alvin Toffler, author of “Future Shock,” said, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.”

As leaders, we’re besieged by information, and the contexts in which we work are changing daily. That’s why it’s more important than ever to be not only willing to learn but eager to learn as well.

Emotions are like an on-off switch to learning. If you’re resistant and fearful, you’re in “off” mode, and it will be nearly impossible to learn. If you face new situations as opportunities for growth with an attitude of willingness and curiosity, you get turned “on.”

Our leadership ability is directly correlated to our openness to learning. Once you’re “on,” learning isn’t a source of stress and anxiety but is a source of energy and creativity. ?

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger and columnist for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com.

Most of the companies I admire in the world I think have a deeper purpose. I’ve met a lot of successful entrepreneurs. They all started their businesses not to maximize shareholder value but to pursue a dream.” – John Mackey, CEO and founder of Whole Foods Market Inc.

What would the world look like if each of us pursued purpose before profit?

Just a glance at the headlines reveals example after example of leadership gone awry: people failing to do the jobs with which they were entrusted, mired in greed, wastefulness and willful deception. Gross abuses of power and criminality are all too common. It seems time for drastic change.

When will we close the door on cynicism and complacency? When will we say enough is enough to self-serving leadership and instead examine the impact we’re having on those around us? How can we begin to seek the greater good before our own interests?

It begins with each of us intentionally pursuing our full potential, striving for a purpose greater than ourselves. When we achieve that, our businesses, communities and people will thrive. Profitability will follow purpose, not profitability for the purpose of self-aggrandizement.

Inspire a vision for the greater good.

Deep down, most of us crave a cause to aspire to that is greater than ourselves. In order to lead for the greater good, we must create an expansive vision of the future that engages and inspires those around us. The vision must be one we’re passionate about; positivity is contagious. Those we lead will see that the objective isn’t solely about personal success but rather about a work product everyone can be proud of.

There are two ways we can begin to do this. One is by bringing together diverse teams to share their dreams for the company and their part in making it happen. For this to be a success, we must create inclusive environments where each person feels safe to fully participate.

The second way is to create opportunities for leaders to thoughtfully engage around what it means to lead for the greater good. How does each person define it? What does it mean for the organization as a whole?

Recognize the power of relationships.

When we lead for the greater good, we focus on what’s best for our organizations and our employees. Leading for the greater good means you don’t browbeat people into doing what you want. Instead it’s about determining if they want what you want and vice versa. It’s about shared goals and full engagement in working toward those goals. This can’t be achieved through coercion or with a megaphone. Instead it requires relationships developed through conversation.

In a June 2012 article in Harvard Business Review titled “Leadership is Conversation,” Boris Groysberg and Michael Slind affirm the role of conversation for today’s leaders. They rightly point out that a top-down leadership approach is on the way out and that leadership that emphasizes conversation is the way of the future. They have coined a model called “organizational conversation,” which simply emphasizes intimacy, interactivity, inclusion and intentionality.

As leaders, we need to ask ourselves, which of my actions and habits limit or prevent relationship-building? Am I contributing to an atmosphere of intimacy and trust,or of fear and exclusion? Which of my behaviors are selfish and which are leading for the greater good? Am I investing the time to meaningfully engage with people and learn from them? Are they open to learn from me?

Damaging behaviors include being distant or inaccessible, overly judgmental and critical, and dismissing the contributions of others. Selfishness and bad behavior have been shown to be contagious, as have positive behaviors. As leaders, we must recognize that relationships can’t take root in a climate where negative behaviors are flourishing. Shifting the climate to one of positivity and interactivity is incumbent on us.

Give credit to others.

Leaders who lead for the greater good aren’t trying to amass credit for themselves. They understand that their employees want and deserve credit too, and they know that by giving them recognition, everyone benefits. It should be obvious that people will be more likely to support your goals when they see your primary interest isn’t self-promotion but rather teamwork. Create opportunities to recognize the contributions of others.

Emotion and behavior are contagious. As leaders, we must consider the ripple effect of our actions. Are we going to radiate selfishness, complacency and negativity? Or will we reach for a worthwhile purpose greater than ourselves and choose to inspire positivity, connectivity and hope in those around us? ?

 

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com

Thursday, 28 February 2013 19:00

Donna Rae Smith: Face your fear

Growing up, I was terrified of heights. To cope with my fear, I did what many people do: I avoided it. The funny thing about avoidance is that, while it sounds like a passive tactic and an easy way out, it actually requires energy.

I would plan ways to avoid being confronted with heights. Eventually, I had enough of avoidance. I decided that I wanted to confront my fear. So I booked a trip to the most challenging place I could think of: the Grand Canyon.

It would have been terrifying enough to stand at an observation point and peer down into the canyon. But that wasn’t my plan. I was going for broke. I was going to descend into the canyon on foot.

 

One step at a time

That slow descent into the Grand Canyon has become for me a metaphor for confronting any fear. The message is simple: Instead of allowing fear to be a paralyzing force, confront it one step at a time.

You don’t need to be afraid of heights to know fear. Fear is the single most limiting force in our lives — whether it’s fear of failing at a new venture, fear that our ideas will be rejected, fear that we’ll lose our jobs, or fear that people will discover we’re not as competent or talented as they think.

The difference is that unlike my fear of heights, many of us don’t realize our fears and we don’t comprehend how they hold us back. Until we can name them, we can’t confront them.

I realized that my fear of heights was crippling when I admitted the lengths I was taking to avoid my fear. People use avoidance around fear all the time: we avoid speaking frankly or truthfully for fear of confrontation or for fear of being perceived as a whistleblower.

We avoid showing emotion or appearing too human for fear of being perceived as weak; we avoid excelling, for fear of being given more responsibility that we won’t be able to handle.

 

We become conditioned

In some cases, our mechanisms for avoidance are so ingrained we fail to notice we’re even doing them anymore. A boss who has a longstanding habit of intimidating employees and creating a climate of fear will be slow to admit that his behavior is masking his own fears — fears of his authority being challenged or undermined, or fears of being exposed as an ineffective leader.

An employee who fears management may go to great lengths to hide issues of safety on the plant floor; he fears that if management finds out, he’ll lose his job. Avoidance takes energy — negative energy, and can leave us physically and psychologically exhausted over time.

Both the boss and the employee may be so accustomed to avoidance that they fail to realize the toll it’s taking on them. They don’t realize that they would be more effective (and safer) if they confronted their fears rather than avoided them.

Are you using avoidance as a tactic when it comes to fear? Are you spending energy and devising tactics to avoid what you fear?

 

Where to begin a solution

Begin by paying attention to what you’re avoiding. Listen to your gut as you go through your day. Are there instances where you avoid doing/saying what you know is in your best interests because you fear the result?

Take small steps. Once you know what you’re avoiding, force yourself to take small steps in the direction of your fear. If you’ve gotten feedback that employees find you unapproachable, what can you do to be more open? Start with a small time commitment, such as five minutes.

What can you do in five minutes? Believe it or not, five minutes can be powerful. Perhaps initiate a five-minute conversation with an employee — ask a question, listen attentively to the answer, and then restate what you heard.

Fear keeps us stuck in place — for weeks, months, or even years. The only way forward is through awareness and willingness — awareness of what we fear and willingness to take the first step.

 

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, please visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com

When my great grandparents immigrated to America from Italy in the late 19th century, they sought to assimilate. Like many newcomers, their goal was to work hard and blend in with their American neighbors.

A lot has changed since then. We’re a far more diverse nation than we were 100 years ago and technology has made the world a much smaller place. Success still requires hard work, but it no longer hinges on blending in. In fact, the opposite is largely true: In order to compete and thrive, individuals increasingly need to identify and magnify what it is that makes them different.

The same holds true for organizations: They must stake a claim to what separates them from the rest and create environments where employees’ diversity is an asset and an advantage.

It’s obvious to me that this is the wave of the future. Yet, I still encounter a surprising amount of resistance to embracing differences on a personal level. Many work environments continue to be characterized by an atmosphere of conformity. I can only assume that this is because people find differences to be threatening and uncomfortable. In this setting, employees are stifled rather than encouraged when they think or behave differently from the norm.

Working exclusively alongside people who share similar skill sets and worldviews is like trying to comprise a winning football team with 11 quarterbacks: You’ll be great at passing, but the rest of your game will be lacking. Or like trying to win a game with only two plays: It doesn’t matter how brilliant those plays are, you need greater versatility.

Today’s pioneering businesses know that thriving in a complex, ever-changing market requires being nimble and well-rounded. They know they must respond quickly and creatively to challenges and barriers. They do that by leveraging their “originality factor” — getting the most from the distinct skills and talents of each member of their workforce.

How do you maximize the benefit of your employees’ different skills, talents and views? By fostering a work environment that supports limitless, non-conformist thinking. The way work is produced dramatically influences what work is produced. You can’t separate process from outcomes. Here are a few proven ideas:

Cross-train. We can deepen our strengths when we actively seek to develop new, boundary-spanning skills and knowledge, like athletes who work their muscles through a variety of exercise routines. In the process we make ourselves more well-rounded and bring greater value to our businesses.

Limitless idea-making. Provide employees with an innovation room — a dedicated physical space where free-thinking is not only encouraged but expected. The space should inspire creativity. Its design is hemmed in only by your imagination. Think large work tables or no tables at all, pedestals, chairs in uncommon configurations, writing tablets, colorful pens or even crayons.

This space shouldn’t be reserved for special-occasions, but accessible at all times with the understanding that it’s for generating innovative and creative ideas.

Boost morale. A strong sense of team membership fosters feelings of inclusion. Once each team member believes that they are a valued member of the team, they’ll feel much more comfortable to offer creative solutions to problems.

Promote teambuilding through an emphasis on open and honest communication; encourage broad input during meetings, making sure that the stage isn’t monopolized by a few; publicly applaud team successes; and create opportunities for team members to develop relationships.

Push your boundaries. Most people have strong notions of what they are and are not good at doing. They tend to play to their strengths and quickly dismiss the time and energy required to learn a new skill, cutting off opportunities for growth. Push yourself and others to go beyond current strengths by experimenting with new and different skills and behaviors.

Businesses and people that embrace differences and actively experiment with them will overcome barriers and gridlock in an accelerated way and reach their targets more rapidly. Those who resist will be left behind.

As a leader, what are you doing to create an environment where differences are encouraged and valued? You can start by modeling what you value and desire: If you’re not afraid to be an individual and go against the grain, it frees others to do the same. Leaders who demonstrate a willingness to be different and set themselves apart will prompt others to follow suit.

But it doesn’t stop there. The work environment has to be one where different skills and strengths are valued equally.

Are you making the most of your originality factor?

 

Donna Rae Smith is a guest blogger for Smart Business. She is the founder and CEO of Bright Side Inc., a transformational change catalyst company that has partnered with more than 250 of the world’s most influential companies. For more information, visit www.bright-side.com or contact Donna Rae Smith at donnarae@bright-side.com.

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