What if

What if you could get promoted? What if you could quit? What if you could stand up to that bully in marketing? What if you could just get your team on the same page?

What if you got all A’s in school? What if you got into a good college? What if you still have no idea what to do with your life? What if you never traveled?

What if you reached that one sullen kid? What if you said no to the tests? What if you did what was warranted? What if you said yes?

What if you said what you really meant? What if you decided? What if you listened? Really listened.

What if?

Is your world ending? Shouldn’t it?

It’s November 21st and, according to the folks at this website, the end of the world may be upon us just one month from today. If you are a student of Nostradamus or the Mayan administrative assistant who quit work before finishing the calendar project, you may be stockpiling canned goods as we speak.

But for those of us not on the 12212012 bandwagon yet, perhaps we should take notice.

Are you strong and healthy?  Are your relationships supportive and mutually satisfying? Is your work gratifying and meaningful to you?  Do you experience moments of joy?  Are you living a purposeful life?

If not, perhaps you should end your world as you know it.

I work with folks who are stuck.  Stuck in a soul-sucking job.  Stuck feeling unmotivated, unengaged and unappreciated.  Stuck in a battle they are fighting on the way up the down escalator.  The first step is to want something better.

Augusten Burroughs, author of “This Is How”, wrote about contemplating suicide.  When he explored what he wanted to accomplish through his death, he writes: “I realized something. It wasn’t that I wanted to kill myself. What I really wanted was to end my life.”

Each of us is accountable in this way.  Not only for acknowledging where we are today but where we want to go, who we want to be.

Take stock of where you are. What’s working?  What’s not?  Envision what you want.  Know you can have it.  Ask for help.  Make a change.  Take the leap.

When Rick and I were married twenty two years ago we chose for our wedding song: “It’s the End of the World as We Know It” by R.E.M..  It was.  End your world and begin anew.  It’s scary, but it’s worth it.  And you can do it again and again until you get it right.

Road Rage and the Happy Bug

Our last house was located on a very busy street.  The first ten minutes of my commute to work was spent tensely poised at the end of my driveway waiting to catapult my car into the smallest break of creeping traffic.  This was tricky, because apparently this particular street had been reserved for people who had Very Important Places to be and therefore could not let anyone get into line in front of them.

300 feet down the road was the next hurdle: THE ROTARY.  A fun game for me to play each morning was deciding which rotary approach to take.  Option one was “Operation Passive”.  If I had the time, I would enter the rotary and then patiently count how many cars it took before one would acknowledge my right of way and let me through. If I was in a feisty mood, it was “Operation Aggressive” where I would brazenly course through, foot on the gas, actively asserting my “right of way” to the joyous cacophony of blaring (though misinformed) horns.  (Public service announcement: If you or someone you know slept through driving school and missed the part about how to drive in a rotary.  Click here.  Seriously.  CLICK IT!!!! And pay close attention to Step 5, I beg you.)

Anyhoo, another 500 feet or so was the high school.  Now back in my day, while I didn’t have to walk 10 miles, barefoot, in the snow, uphill (both ways) to school, I DID walk.  And so did most everyone else.  Either that or we took the bus.  At this same high school today, I think both parents drive separate cars to drop off each kid.  And it must be the only quality family time they get as evidenced by the ETERNITY it took them to exit the car and move on.

Finally, I was free to make my way to the highway.  Okay, deep breath, relax the shoulders.  GODAMIT WHY IS THAT GUY ON MY TAIL????? I’M ALREADY GOING 80!!!!  (Rinse, repeat)

And this is how I would arrive to work.  Every day.  Sometimes I was in a good mood despite it all.  Sometimes I was enraged.  Sometimes I was so rattled I couldn’t think straight.

As managers and as professionals, we need to be aware of our surroundings and how they impact us.  We need to be purposeful about what we subject ourselves to and how we can smooth the edges in our lives so that the important stuff gets the attention it deserves.  We need to be smart, alert, open and thoughtful in order to successfully navigate our way through the rapid fire environments we live and work in.

And we can’t do that if we’re constantly piqued.

I made some changes to my own commute.  Now, I pull out onto a quiet country road, pass the reservoir as the sun drizzles over the sparkling water’s edge and inhale the deep damp pine of the forest as I make my way to the highway.  I drive a VW convertible that makes me happy and makes others smile in spite of themselves.  My biggest worry (at least until I get to the highway) is whether I might hit a deer.

What changes can YOU make?  Get up earlier? Slow down? Say no? Play more?  Whatever change you choose.  You will not believe the difference.

And one final word: Do not underestimate the role of proper rotary management in achieving world peace.



When I was about ten years old my family took a trip to Misquamicut in Rhode Island – a classic New England beach boasting hot sand, pounding surf and a never-ending supply of body-boarding wave perfection.

The waves were taller than I was and they came crashing one after another after another creating a frothy and frenetic threshold into the fun.  As we flung ourselves toward the next wave, timing was everything.  To catch it just right was to feel the whole ocean beneath you, speeding you forward as you crested and sloshed into shore.

Scrambling to our feet there was no time to savor the victory before the powerful backwash threatened to suck us under and the next wave was upon us.  It was real-time, physical, thrilling fun.

There have been many times in my work that I’ve felt a similar rush – when the waves of problems and fires and demands come fast and furious and I’m tested to the limits of my skill and stamina.  I’ve loved those times.  I even grew a bit addicted to them.  The adrenaline rush of accomplishing the impossible; the “I can do it” mentality.

Misquamicut is also known for its challenging undertow. Because of the beach’s steep grade, the backwash (the subsurface current of water that returns to the sea after a wave breaks) is pretty powerful.  And with so many waves coming in, it can often cause an unsuspecting swimmer to be knocked down under the water and beaten to a sandy pulp before being (hopefully) spat out to enjoy her next wave.

After a particularly fabulous wave run, I had waited too long to scramble out of the way.  As I tried to get to my feet, the undertow kept pulling the sand out from under me.  The next wave slammed down over me, knocking me flat and pulling me further from shore.  Unable to break the surface before the next wave crashed down, I was tossed and flipped under the water as I felt my face and limbs scraped against the ocean floor.  Starting to panic, I tried to figure out which way was up.  I needed to breath.  I needed to stand.  I need to get out of this. Does anyone even see that I’ve gone under?!?

While it may be gratifying to solve a million problems, douse a million fires and still stand to shout “BRING IT ON!”, those waves can get the best of you if you’re not careful.

Here are some tips:

1. Don’t be an adrenaline junkie. It’s easy to get swept up in the urgency and the chaos of your work environment.  If you want emergencies, become an EMT or a pediatric intensive care nurse.  Know your work, understand your goals, perform triage and move on.

2. Pay attention to your resources.  YOU are a resource.  If that resource is tired, distracted, overwhelmed or unhealthy, it will not serve you well.  Pay attention to your own health, strength and focus.  If your resources need restoring, do it.  It is irresponsible to do otherwise.

3. Have a buddy system.  Whether it’s your manager, colleague, coach or family member, having someone with whom you can review what’s going well (and what’s not) is invaluable. Often we’re the last ones to notice that we’re about to be swamped by the next wave.  Good to have a spotter.

4. Relax.  When we’re in the froth it’s natural to tense up against the onslaught and fight your way through.  It may be counter-intuitive but the best thing to do when the waves are getting the best of you is to relax.  Take a moment or an hour or a day to step back, gain perspective, go with the flow, follow a lead.  Our panicked reaction is not representative of our smartest, most creative self.

The ocean spat me out.  I was shaken, relieved, embarrassed, and a little miffed that no one had noticed that I had nearly drowned.



What’s Working?

The “What’s working?” question is a corollary to the constructive venting I talked about in an earlier post.

The organizational development approach of Appreciative Inquiry posits that identifying and leveraging the good stuff is as or even more effective than finding and fixing the bad stuff.

I’m not quite as idealistic as the hard core AI’ers so I like to start with a spirited and invigorating bitch session (for lack of a more delightfully appropriate phrase) followed by the “baby out with bathwater” question.

Spent from the exertion of spewing venom about one’s circumstances (ie: management-doesn’t-support-the-goals-we-don’t-have-the-resources-to-do-our-job-leadership-is-inconsistent-I’m-not-paid-enough-for-this-s$#t-why-does-XYZ-department-get-flex-schedules-and-we-don’t?-…) folks are ready for it.

Wow.  There’s A Lot Wrong

A team in the throes of improvement needs to hear some acknowledgement: “Wow.  There’s a lot wrong.  Sounds like we’ve got our work cut out for us.”  The thing is, if your team thinks there’s a lot wrong, then there is.  Until your team feels like things are going reasonably swimmingly, you will continue to peer through from the sorry-end of the knothole.  So you might as well acknowledge it so that they can move to the next stage.

Baby Out with the Bathwater

Once we’ve vented and once we’ve acknowledged the monumental problems that need to be addressed, we wonder: “Is there anything working well that we should take care to preserve?”  Afterall, we wouldn’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater…

If you give the venting enough genuine space and time to breathe, then when you ask this next question, you are likely to hear about some pretty important (and leveragable) aspects of your organization that can help you get to goal.

Forget Positive Thinking

We’ve been beaten repeatedly about the head and shoulders in recent years to remember to “think positively”.  Woe to the team member who voices concern.  The trusty contrarian is now disdained and the nay sayers are summarily silenced.

Ironically, by squashing these Negative Nellies we are slowing down positive progress toward our most critical goals.

Research shows that our human brains are wired against change.  Introducing a new direction (information, competition, pace, etc.) causes a physiological stress reaction against the change.

The Value of Venting

Interestingly, one of the fastest ways to reduce the emergency brake effect of this stress reaction is to allow a bit of venting.  “What don’t we like about this news?” “What problems will it cause?”  “What can go wrong?” “Why is it stupid?” What may not have been taken into consideration?”

Our stress response is linked to survival.  Adrenaline is triggered which sets off flight/flight/freeze behavior.  At work this takes the form of the contrarian who fights back, the star team member who dusts off her resume to prepare for flight, the long timer who’ll bide his time, frozen in place.

Brain scan technology shows that just naming the threat – thinking it, saying it or, even more effective, writing it down – counteracts the threat response.  By giving credence to the stress factor and addressing it, we return out of threat mode and can enter a more rational state.

Once all the big bad stuff has been vented, we are in a physiologically more receptive place to ask: “How will we handle this?”

Dependency on External Motivation / Seth Godin

The following post is taken from Seth Godin’s fabulous blog.  See the original post here.  (And subscribe to his feed if you know what’s good for you)


“One of the characteristics of the industrial age was the reliance on external motivation.

Go to work on time or the boss will be angry.

Work extra hard and the boss will give you a promotion.

If you get paid to work piecework, then your paycheck goes up when you work harder.

This mindset is captured by the Vince Lombardi/pro sports/college sports model of the coach as king. Of course we’ll have our non-profit universitiess pay a football coach a million or more a year, of course we need these icons at the helm–how else will we get our players to perform at their best?

I was struck by a photo I saw of male fencers at Cornell who practice with the women’s fencing team. Clearly, they’re not allowed to compete in matches (though the university counts them for Title XIV). I got to thinking about what motivates these fencers. Are they doing it because they’re afraid of the coach or getting cut? Would they fence better if they were?

The nature of our new economic system, that one that doesn’t support predictable factory work, is that external motivation is far less useful. If you’re looking for a big payday, you won’t find it right away. If you’re depending on cheers and thank yous from your Twitter followers, you’re looking at a very bumpy ride.

In fact, the world is more and more aligned in favor of those who find motivation inside, who would do what they do even if it wasn’t their job. As jobs turn into projects, the leaders we need are those that relish the project, that jump at the chance to push themselves harder than any coach ever could.”


It is extraordinarily critical for those of us who are leaders, change agents and educators to understand the implications of this.  Where do we currently build skill in internal motivation?  We understand the why of it.  We need to develop the how.

A Picture of Purposeful Engagement

This is a picture of my kids from a number of years ago.  It sits on a shelf above the stove where I was making tea in the kitchen this morning.  It occurred to me that this is a picture of purposeful engagement in meaningful work.  Do you think so too?  Why?


Three Kids Helping

Purposeful Engagement in Meaningful Work

Value Stream Mapping the Engaged Employee

I inspire purposeful engagement in meaningful work.  In business settings, I see this as a three-part equation:

1. The organization’s role in providing a safe, responsible, resourced environment.

2. Management practices and culture that support productivity and engagement.

3. Individuals who are skilled in and accountable for their own motivation and engagement toward the work in which they’ve chosen to participate.

There’s literally a ton of guidance available on the first two.  It’s this last one that has me thinking.

In the workplace, I’ve found what I think is the best thing since sliced bread to build these skills – to build the self awareness, resilience, and talent-driven initiative in employees to meet business goals.  But what if we could get them earlier?  How are engaged employees made?  Where do they come from?

Enter: Value Stream Mapping. Wikipedia says that Value Stream Mapping is a lean manufacturing technique used to analyze the flow of materials and information currently required to bring a product or service to a consumer. At Toyota, where the technique originated, it is known as “material and information flow mapping”. It can be used in any process that needs an improvement.

Our Process Needs an Improvement

The engaged employee is the product.  The new workplace is the consumer.  The new economy is the market.

What is the flow of materials and information currently being used to bring an engaged employee to the workplace in this new economy?  I contend that there isn’t any.  Or at least not that much.  And definitely not on purpose.

Employees come from college (or not) and high-school (or not) and elementary school (usually) and homes (arguably).  Where in that value stream do we intentionally build capability in self awareness? Resilience? Identification of unique personal talent? Articulation of one’s contribution?  At best these are electives.

Why That’s Not Okay

In an industrial economy, that was fine.  There wasn’t much call for multi-career adaptability or innovation-at-all-levels initiative.  But the new economy and workplace demand it.

More importantly, recent research shows that these skills are physiologically imperative to lasting motivation and engagement and, ultimately to the achievement of gratifying work.  We literally cannot learn, grow and adapt if we are not resilient in the face of challenge.  We cannot be as productive, innovative and satisfied if we are not actively applying our natural talents to our work. The research also shows that we can build greater self-efficacy and, that by doing so, we can more reliably tap into and even achieve our potential.

How to Improve the Process

1. As business leaders, students, parents and educators we have a responsibility to respond to the new demands of our economy, workplace and workers. (Download Llama Groomer workshops and curriculum 01212011 PDF to see an example of what I mean)

2. Skills in self-efficacy and being accountable for tapping one’s potential (we could call it “self-actualization” if that didn’t sound so woo woo but check out the definition – it’s not so far fetched!) should be introduced earlier and developed purposefully throughout individual’s development.

3. The idea of “success” should be broadened to include the many career paths our new economy allows now – including those that do not require college preparation, those that are better supported by a trade education or those that could be attained with a new track of entrepreneurial or business basics.

4. Organizations should demand, hire for and manage performance to these self-efficacy and self-actualization skills so that those in their employ are purposefully engaged in meaningful work.

It just means bringing your best self to what you choose to do.  What do YOU think?

Uncommon at a Location Near YOU!

A quick note to my faithful readers:

I’ll be on location at the the following open-to-the-public events.  If you’re near by and would like a dose of Uncommon, consider joining me for one of these sessions!

March 8, 2011 – A New Approach to Motivation and Engagement, Worcester Chamber of Commerce, Worcester, MA

March 31, 2011 – A New Approach to Motivation and Engagement, FREE Demo hosted by KGA, Framingham, MA

April 19, 2011 – the Neuropsychology of Motivation and Engagement: From Theory to Practice to Results (Appearing with Helle Bundgaard, Founder of Motivation Factor®!

This is a great way to get introduced to the remarkable Motivation Factor® framework and gain a new tool for breaking through those pesky obstacles that get in the way of your goals.

See you there!!