A few years ago, I coached Carolyn, the Head of Global Campaign coordination for a small NGO. She had previously worked for a large non-profit organization, where she had developed a a wealth of expertise and leadership experience, fueled by her deep passion to make a difference.
Carolyn was extremely unhappy; not only because her current job did not leverage her talents and provide any opportunity for growth, but also because the demands of work and travel far exceeded the assurances she had been given when she was hired. As the mother of two young children, the long hours and extended trips away from home were having a detrimental effect on her family life. Carolyn knew she had to make a change, but she was deeply insecure about her abilities to get another job. Her biggest desire was to find out what would make her happy and enable her to use her strengths and talents in a positive way.
While every job has its down sides, I was struck by how out of balance the tradeoffs seemed to be in Carolyn’s case. She was getting too little of what was important to her and too much of what was draining and uninteresting. It made sense that she wanted to re-asses her values, and talents, in order to determine what kind of professional role would be rewarding now. Yet I was also curious to better understand what drove her to make the compromises she did in the first place. She complained often that her boss promised her things and didn’t come through, while at the same time he kept asking more and more of her time and energy. I sensed that the ‘Pleaser’ side of her was taking charge, preventing her from setting boundaries while boosting unrealistic high expectations of herself.
With Carolyn’s permission, I interviewed the ‘Pleaser’ through Voice Dialogue. What we discovered was that the Pleaser’s behavior was often driven by a need to prove herself to others. By holding the bar high, so as make others happy, she repeatedly over-extended herself. She felt more comfortable making excuses for others and taking on their tasks herself instead of setting boundaries of responsibility. It became clear that Carolyn needed to connect with other parts of herself in order to practice assertiveness and direct communication. Her breakthrough came with the insight that if she was going to create more balance in her life at any job, she needed to learn to hold others accountable.
After addressing Carolyn’s issues with boundary setting, we shifted the focus back to her goal of creating a vision for a job that would make her happy. In response to a series of questions on the topic of 'Who am I?’ and 'Ideal job description’, Carolyn was able to reflect on her priorities and desires in a way that helped to shape a new direction for her career.
Carolyn was surprised at how easy it was to get immediate agreement from her boss once she clearly expressed her needs. She succeeded to extend her family vacation and cancel a non-essential business trip. When she informed her boss that the work load was too much, he immediately responded with an offer to raise money to hire an assistant for her. Carolyn called it her 'standing-up-for-myself muscle' and she enjoyed flexing it. Her newfound self-empowerment gave her the courage to turn down a new job offer which was below her level. Although she was determined to leave her present job, she now had the confidence and patience to wait until the right opportunity came along.
Ultimately Carolyn decided to take the step to establish her own consulting firm to support other NGO’s.
In her own words: I am living this dream now and it is making me super happy!
From Pirouette to Pilot: How Christa Kloosman used her professional dance skills to find her place in the sky
When she was four years old, Christa Kloosman saw ''The Nutcracker''and was totally enchanted. She started taking ballet lessons as a young child and continued throughout her school years, studying dance during the afternoons and on weekends. When she was 16, she was accepted at the dance academy in Tilburg where she was fast tracked to advanced classes and was a guest student at a Belgian ballet company. Christa later trained in Austria before being offered a contract at the Dutch National Opera.
It was during her mid-twenties that Christa got a series of injuries which kept her away from performing and taking class for months at a time. She soldiered on despite the pain, telling herself "It's better than yesterday.", but more injuries followed. At a certain point, Christa knew she needed to find another perspective, so she decided to step back from the stage and the whole performing arts world. Her goal was to take a break, relax and get healthy again. She decided to enroll in a stewardess training program at KLM.
I interviewed Christa in 2013 when she was just starting out as a pilot. To celebrate her being honored as a unique ''Nederlander'' I wanted to share her thoughts and observations again about her experience of being a dancer transitioning to a new career.
You entered a program to become a stewardess but ended up as a pilot. How did that happen?
I thought the KLM stewardess training program would give me some time to think about my situation. I had always liked traveling, so I would have the chance to finally see something of the world. The amazing thing is that the moment I entered the plane on my first day of training, I realized that I actually didn't want to turn to the right to the passenger section with the rest of my class, but that I would much rather make a left straight into the cockpit! I thought, 'Hey pilot! That's really something for me." And maybe I was a bit naïve - like many dancers - but I applied directly to the pilot academy - and I was accepted!
What was it like to make the career switch from the dance world to the culture of airplanes and pilots?
Actually, it was not as big a leap as you would think. In both environments I was surrounded by people who, like myself, were focused and passionate about achieving their goals, whether it was to be a star professional dancer or an excellent pilot. My experience of the two professions is pretty similar, except that I am not putting my leg so high in the air anymore.
In what other ways is dancing like flying a plane?
As in a dance performance, every flight is the result of the combined efforts of dedicated professionals behind the scenes. A dancer appears on stage knowing the steps and the choreographer who made them, the stage manager calling the cues and the conductor who leads the orchestra. She or he is supported by a team of dancer colleagues accomplished musicians. And without the technical guys who drive the whole production from one location to the next, the whole thing would never ''get off the ground."
As a pilot you have to rehearse your tasks - the order, the timing and the interactions with your colleagues. You know your crew, and how they got trained. You rely on experts to check the plane and give it fuel. Air traffic controllers call the cues. The plane doesn't take off just because you are piloting it - there is a whole production team of people behind you who makes sure that the ''performance'' happens.
What is it like to be a female pilot in a profession traditionally dominated by men?
In my flight academy class of 20, there were only two women, myself included. Yet being a woman in this profession can be an advantage these days. KLM, like many other western airlines, is committed to hiring more female pilots. They have realized that female pilots create more balance in the cockpit, alongside male pilots. Women look at things differently, they are more creative and more precise in their work. So they are considered an asset to the flight industry.
Which skills cultivated during your dance career helped you to become a pilot?
When you are performing on stage and something goes wrong - with the lights, the music or the choreography- you have to make snap decisions and work with what you've got: your body, the choreography, your knowledge of the music, your awareness of who else is on stage with you, and the technical support off-stage. You improvise a solution by working with the material at hand and solve the problem so that things can continue.
That is exactly what you need to do when you are having trouble in the cockpit: quick clear thinking and the ability to improvise. Although serious malfunctions while in flight are rare, if all of a sudden an engine stops, there is an explosion or a drop off - the same principle applies: you know yourself, the material and the capacities of the person sitting next to you and you have to think quickly and stay cool, just as you would when the unexpected happens in a dance performance.
I also discovered that my short-term memory skills were highly developed from my dance training. While I found it challenging to absorb a lot of information out of text books, once I was in the cockpit - learning all kinds of codes for radar and operating information, I could immediately function on a very high level. This particular skill - used to pick up combinations in dance class for example - demands that you become a keen observer of details and process it all in a very short time. You repeat it a couple of times and then you've got it.
In the cockpit I'm sitting next to the captain or my second officer behind me, and I’m also interacting with the cabin crew. I can pick up on important information because of a heightened sensitivity to how people use their bodies. I can quickly understand the strengths, weakness and styles of the colleagues I ''partner'' with. I multi-task by managing several channels of awareness at the same time. Certainly not all pilots have this skill.
As an ex-dancer, what was the most challenging part of your pilot training?
Because of my intense focus on dancing when I was in high school, I never learned science and math. I needed to quickly catch up in these areas. So I put in the extra study time and got a certificate in these subjects. Because I wasn't used to studying in this way, it took me more time to learn. In some ways I had to work harder than my colleagues. But I also proved to myself ''You are never too old to learn."
Where there any qualities developed as a dancer that you had to overcome as a pilot?
Yes, that was 'perfectionism' - that little voice inside that tells you that your leg isn't turned out enough, your dancing could always be more precise, you could be thinner than you are - anything I did could always be better. This attitude is a major weakness if you are a pilot. You must able to cope with things not going perfectly in order to pilot a plane safely. You need the ability to spread your focus on everything that is happening, because if you become obsessed with one detail, other things will fall apart. I learned this already from day one as a stewardess, which helped me to prepare for the flexibility I needed as a pilot.
What would you advise other dancers in career transition?
I would say, ''just be yourself" and don't ever underestimate what you have already achieved. There are so many skills you learn as a dancer that are transferrable to another profession.
Focus on yourself and don't be concerned about what other people think of you. Take whatever support is offered. Seek contact with people outside the theater and artistic world as much as possible.
Because the dance world can be so isolating, it's good, even temporarily, to have a little job outside the theater world. It doesn't matter what it is, the idea is to get a first experience in the "real world". Doing that small job isn't signifying the end of things - the stopping of dancing, but the beginning of a whole new world that is opening up for you. It's actually a great gift that you can start from scratch again.
If you could choose one word, what would express your overall feeling about making a career switch?
Freedom! As a dancer, you try to achieve that idea of flying onstage, defying gravity through physical power. When I am a stewardess or piloting in the cockpit, I am still flying, inspired by this sense of freedom for me. As much fun as I had as a dancer, I discovered that I could find a new passion, just as intense and rewarding through a different career, without the pain. That's such a gift. There is not one passion, but many passions in life.
Lisa Ross-Marcus provides life coaching for dancers at all stages of their careers.
''What do you feel passionate about?'' is a key question in any meaningful discussion about career choices. While those who have a clear sense of purpose are more likely to thrive in their professional roles, there is a distinction between those with high job satisfaction and those whose passion to create change and achieve the impossible is a zealous lifelong project. These are the individuals who stick their necks out, risk-takers who sacrifice security and ease while shouldering the responsibilities of making the world a better place.
Think of mission driven roles such as NGO campaigners, political activists, and health care workers. And let's not forget civil rights lawyers and investigative journalists. What all of these outstanding professionals share is a passionate commitment to social justice and making a concrete difference in the well-being of people and planet.
Whatever you do – don’t let others down
Besides a sense that these professionals live and breathe their passion every day, they all tend to have something else in common: a deep conviction that they must not let others down. While this belief can inspire the qualities of tenacity, responsibility and self-belief, the shadow side of this mindset can drive some self-sabotaging behaviors such as micro-managing, inability to set boundaries and neglect of physical and emotional needs.
Loyalty in the mission driven workplace.
Based on shared values, the positive side of loyalty is that it binds people to a group, an organization or a cause. However, when loyalty becomes the primary standard for action, there is a constant potential to let someone down: Is it your manager who is pressuring you to stay up all night to finish a grant proposal? Your colleagues who don't want you to accept another job offer? Is it an invitation to another international conference? Or is it an entire village in Malawi waiting for you to lead a project that will require a long-term separation from your family?
Numbing out our needs
Of course there are times when rising to the occasion is the right thing to do, and the sense of achievement that follows boosts morale and maintains motivation. The problem occurs when the systematic fear of being disloyal - of letting others down- has a numbing effect on our ability to stay connected to our own needs. When these vital messages are blocked from the command control center in our heads, they find other ways to get our attention. We become irritable and argumentative. No matter how long we sleep we never feel rested. We seem to always feel harried and rushed; we make careless mistakes, and that queasy sensation in the pit of our stomachs is a constant reminder that we have already exceeded our limits. Yet these signals get routinely ignored, fueled by the belief that if others found out the truth, we would be letting them down.
So the question is: How can we avoid the trap of depleting ourselves physically and emotionally, in order to remain loyal to the causes and goals we feel passionate about? The key word here is vulnerability.
Your Personal Alarm system
Feelings of vulnerability trigger the alarm system that lets us know when things have gone too far: when the gap between the demands being made on us and what we are capable of at this moment in time has gotten too wide.
Allowing yourself to be vulnerable means recognizing the signals your emotions, your energy and your body are sending you.
Be loyal to yourself
Whereas loyalty refers to ideals, people and organizations outside of ourselves, vulnerability is a recognition of our inner needs and our ability to express them constructively to others. Being tuned in to your own vulnerability can be uncomfortable. It means letting go of the idea of always being strong, being able to cope and being in control. In a mission driven environment, your expression of personal needs could be perceived as undermining the plan, going off message or selfishness. Your loyalty to others may be called into question, and it is important to remember that this is not the issue. What matters here is loyalty to yourself - telling truth about what is really going on with you and trusting that your passion and commitment for what you do will continue to make a difference over time. The decision is yours: Are you going to burn your candle at both ends or be sustained by an eternal flame?
One principle used in coaching is to replace habitual limiting beliefs with fresh helping beliefs. Instead of thinking ‘’I am letting others down.”, you can also think “I am taking care of myself in order to keep my commitment to the cause I believe in.” Or “I can trust others to take on my responsibilities.” Or simply, “It’s OK for me to rest.” Focusing your attention on shifting what you believe about the situation you are in, will help you to stay positive and give you the courage to follow through on making other choices.
Synergizing Loyalty and Well-being
From a practical standpoint, there are several constructive ways to promote your own well-being while remaining loyal to your cause. Here are a few suggestions:
1. Don’t wait until the last minute: Whenever possible, don't wait until the last minute if you need to back out of a commitment. Show your support by giving stakeholders ample time to find a replacement or create a Plan B.
2. Support the new plan: Be willing to contribute help or expertise to the new plan, including coaching the person who will take over (some of) your responsibilities. This is not a moment to become protective or possessive of your own content or role. However, you can certainly request that you receive credit for your contribution to the endeavor.
3. No blame: Desist from blaming yourself or others for your need to pull back. You are not a victim, you are an empowered person asking for help and understanding with dignity. Your positive attitude will be a role model for others.
4. Troubleshoot: Learn to recognize colleagues and direct reports who might be suffering from a loyalty conflict. Show compassion and support for the idea of them looking after themselves and the value of their contribuion to the organization in the long term. Be catalyst of changing the culture in your organization from one which promotes ''loyalty at all costs'' to " support the well-being of our team."
Lisa Ross-Marcus is a leadership coach for women and an intercultural consultant.
I recently celebrated a milestone birthday which gathered together a diverse group of friends, colleagues and family, spanning several decades and careers. I found myself relishing the opportunity to stand in the spotlight and revisit the different roles I have had throughout my life, and witness how they have shaped the person I have become.
A brief slideshow shared my family history, followed by a film montage of my career as a dancer/choreographer. The submerged amaryllis centerpieces were masterminded by my inner weddingplanner, harkening back to the years when I martialed all of my theatrical experience to create unique and elegant wedding events.
When it came to the party favors, it was the Lisa the Life Coach who took charge. I wanted my guests to leave with a playful yet meaningful souvenir of the party. Something that would trigger both personal reflection and lively dinner table conversation.
Through my own research on the connection between text and emotion in a personal growth process, I had been experimenting with giving different word labels to boxes. I decided to roll this out in a concrete way for my party guests by creating a series of small boxes with 5 different texts. It was a simple project - I bought miniature wooden chests at a hobby shop ( 7.5 X 5.5 X 5 cm) and printed texts on transparent labels, which I then pressed onto the lids.
I scattered these tiny text boxes on the tables and invited my guests choose the one that most resonated for them. They seemed both delighted and intrigued by the gesture. It was fascinating to speak with individual guests about which box they chose and why: LOVE: I'm going on a blind date next week and I'm hoping it will lead to something . FEAR: I have to take my school exams soon and I am afraid I won't pass. TRUST: I need to be reminded to trust myself. TRUTH: In these times we need to regain the meaning of that.
I realised that the power of these tiny text boxes is not only in bringing into focus feelings which are 'top of mind' but also because they are miniature vaults for short written messages and very small objects. The strength of such an absurdly small box is that you can't really use it for storage. What ever goes into it is more likely to have a deliberate, symbolic meaning. In this sense, they are perfect ritual objects, which can be buried, burnt, cast into a body of water or cherished and displayed as reminders and vessels of ideas and experiences that are important to us.
For this reason, tiny text boxes can be a useful tool in coaching. Clients who are visually and tactile oriented, who relate strongly to symbolism, are likely to respond positively to the introduction of a tiny text box as a support in their change process.
For coaches, there are limitless possibilities of how to use the boxes. My guideline would be to empower the client to choose the text on the box, what goes in it and what happens to the box, in relation to making progress towards their coaching goal. This can be the starting point for a deeper exploration of specific issue or theme related to their change process.
At the same time the tiny text box serves as visual anchor of a positive core idea or empowering belief that has emerged through the coaching, which will endure long after the coaching process is finished.
If you decide to use the tiny text boxes as a coaching tool or for a personal use I would love to receive your to feedback, observations or questions. Thanks!
“What are you going to do to compensate me for 10,000 malfunctioning intercom systems my company bought from you?” I barked at the Spanish business executive seated across the conference table from me. In my role as actor in a training simulation, I had been venting my complaints to him about his lousy products for the past 15 minutes, and I was not planning to leave the meeting empty handed.
He looked down at his notepad sheepishly, sweat forming at his temples, and I could see his mind was racing but he hesitated to speak. Finally after an excruciating silence “We ……um…I not…….we can’t…um….the intercom…..we not taking intercoms….and you get…um.. descuento?”
Javier had been tagged as a ‘high potential’ by the multi-national consumer electronics company he worked for. He graduated from one of the top business schools in Spain and had been recruited right away to join the sales team at the company. Well-liked by both colleagues and customers, he had exceeded his sales targets three quarters in a row, and had managed to entice a key account away from the companies’ main competitor.
Yet none of these credentials could redeem Javier when it came to negotiating in English, a language in which he clearly was not comfortable. The poor guy was visibly embarrassed about his performance, and his eyes pleaded with me to put him out of his misery. I tilted my head and gazed at him thoughtfully. “Could you send me a proposal?” I asked softly. Instantly, his distressed expression evaporated, and a warm Latin smile spread across his face, “Yes, yes when you want I send it?”
The assessor looked at his watch and gave me a nod. I popped out of my chair to shake the Spaniard’s hand and congratulate him on hanging in there during a tough conversation. Although I was glad I had been able to end the roleplay on a positive note, I was aware that he had been communicating way below his level of knowledge and expertise. A missed opportunity not only for him, but also for his company.
When doing business globally, the decision to establish an official company language, such as English, solves some problems, but creates others. If the latter are not proactively addressed by those in leadership roles, crucial perspectives, expertise and information will slip through the cracks, needlessly diminishing the collective power of the organization.
Statistically, there is a direct correlation between mastery of a language and the amount of time one gets to express ideas and opinions in a conversation. The most likely scenario in a meeting where one speaker communicates in their mother tongue and other speaks a foreign language is:
• The native speaker speaks 75% of the time.
• The non-native speaker speaks 25% of the time.
• The 50% of non-native speaker’s time is spent clarifying what native speaker said.¹
This lopsided exchange gives an unfair advantage to the native speaker, based on nothing more than an accident of birth. So the question is, how can we compensate for differences in language proficiency in the workplace, so that every individual is heard, and their talents and skills are optimally channeled to achieve company goals?
Creating a level playing field of communication
There are several approaches to creating a level playing field of communication in organizations, so that exchanges between native and non-native speakers are balanced and inclusive:
1. Offer flexible language training solutions: The most obvious step in improving understanding and expression in a foreign language is devoting time to learning it. However, companies need to be sensitive to the fact that their employees may already feel stretched by their responsibilities, so a one-size-fits-all solution may not be welcomed.
Offering a variety of options such as on-line or blended learning, short intensive courses, or personal individual instruction, will lower the bar to integrating language study into an existing workload.
2. Lead inclusive conversations: The person leading a meeting should practice deliberately inviting each person to speak, so that the conversation does not revert to the default mode of dominant native speakers. Leaders who facilitate inclusive conversations are great role models for others. They demonstrate the value of attentiveness and patience in creating a welcoming atmosphere for non-native speakers to express themselves, ensuring that their contributions are not lost.
3. Invest time off-line: Even when directly asked for their input, some non-native speakers might still hesitate to share their thoughts in a group situation. This could be because they are not yet proficient enough in speaking the language, or they are shy or lack confidence to find the right words. In some cases, just concentrating in order to follow what others are saying takes all of their energy. Cultural backgrounds which value a strong hierarchy and indirect communication may also be influencing reticent participation in meetings. So another option is to speak privately with these individuals before or after the meeting, in a more relaxed situation. In this way you can be assured that their valuable input will be taken into account.
4. Decrease speed, increase eye contact: There are couple of simple practical tips for maximizing understanding when speaking to non-native speakers, especially in a group situation. If you are a person who tends to talk fast, deliberately slow the pace of your speech. Secondly, be aware of spreading your eye contact as you speak, especially to non-native speakers. Looking in the direction of where you want your message to “land’’ increases its impact. Also, noticing facial expressions can help you to gauge to what extent a non-native speaker is following your story, providing valuable clues about the need to slow down and repeat some information, or a heads up that all is crystal clear and you can move on to the next topic.
5. Reward expression, ignore mistakes: When interacting with non-native speakers it’s important to focus on what really matters – their knowledge, expertise and humanity – not the flawless mastery of a foreign language. If we can think in terms of not “speaking’’ a foreign language but “managing’’ in a foreign language, space is created for infinite variables of competency, accent, style and culture when it comes to getting a message across. When the pressure is off to speak a second language perfectly, individuals can focus on the content of what they want to say and be more authentically themselves. It also becomes easier for non-native speakers to accept friendly feedback about pronunciation, vocabulary, etc. when appropriate. A rousing “Well done!” to a non-native speaker after a presentation can do wonders for building confidence and motivation to keep developing their foreign language skills.
¹ Source: Communicating Internationally in English, Bob Dignan, York Associates
Eating and Aging, Giving and Receiving
Sharing a guest blogpost I wrote for Akteos Cross-Cultural Training.
The Dutch belief that not only you, but everyone close to you is to be congratulated when it is your birthday took me some time to get my head around.
Part I of this blogpost focused on the rituals of celebrating birthdays at work in the Netherlands and the USA. In Part II we look at some of the more “touchy” issues related to birthdays in the USA, as well as what birthdays reveal about the meaning of relationships in both cultures.
In the USA where fairness and equality are fiercely guarded rights, employee birthdays have become breeding grounds for other polarizing issues. There are passionate debates about whether or not it is good to encourage eating calorie loaded cakes in an environment where there is an obesity epidemic. Others will take issue about their right to privacy about their birthday, as ”age discrimination” is a hot topic in the workplace these days. It all boils down to the belief that ”what is good for one has to be equally good for everyone.”
Many clues about the relationship between the individual and the group are revealed in the contrasts between Dutch and American birthday celebrations. Being put in the spotlight on the day of your birthday in the Netherlands is literally not a free lunch. It does entail certain obligations to others – such as providing cake and paying for drinks. In the states, however your birthday is celebrated either work or at home, others are expected to provide for all your needs, nothing is expected in return.
It's not only my birthday!
The Dutch belief that not only you, but everyone close to you is to be congratulated when it is your birthday took me some time to get my head around. I remember the first time I answered the phone on my Dutch boyfriend’s birthday. It was his mother on the other end of the line, enthusiastically wishing me “Congratulations!” Completely confused as I was, I was at first silent and then said,”……um, yeah, it’s Martin’s birthday.” I get it now, and on cue, whenever I attend a Dutch birthday party, I shake hands and congratulate everyone in the room, even if I don’t know who the hell they are, just to play it safe.
The shared sense of achievement at having reached the birthday milestone is another expression of the unique attitude of the Dutch regarding the individual/group relationship. On the one hand, birthdays are seen as sacred occasions, which must be recognized as meaningful both in the workplace and at home. In Dutch culture, your own birthday or the birthday of a family member is accepted as a perfectly legitimate reason to avoid or cancel business appointments. Americans on the other hand, are incredulous if you would even suggest to miss an important meeting because of a birthday celebration.
It’s not that Americans don’t find birthdays important, it’s that it is considered a more private and individual affair. As Americans tend to split up their relationships into groups and categories – work relationships, sports relationships, school relationships etc., they confine their birthday celebrations to the appropriate group. Birthdays are generally celebrated at home or in a restaurant after work hours with family and a select group of friends. There tends to be a lot of flexibility about the date. The preference is to choose a date for a celebration when most people will be available; the birth date itself is not so sacred. In this spirit, people will often plan large birthday celebrations several months before or after the date of their birth.
How to deal with birthdays in an intercultural working environment
Because of the different meanings cultures give to birthdays, being dismissive about them can cause friction on international teams. The seeds of resentment and apathy are sown when people feel that what is important to them is being disrespected. The task-oriented American business executive could be blinded to the sensitivity of this issue, and risk some diminished commitment of colleagues and direct reports.
On the other hand, when doing business with Americans, it’s important to recognize the ”work comes first” attitude, and to appreciate that it has contributed to the drive and success of US companies worldwide. You may not get your day in the spotlight at the office, but if you tell an American it’s your birthday, you can count on an expression of good wishes, and once business is taken care of, a free drink!
Cohesion Creator or Productivity Destroyer?
Sharing a guest blogpost I wrote for Akteos Cross-Cultural Training.
Don’t get the wrong idea: the circus has not come to town, and nobody has gotten a promotion. The big news is that someone you work with has a birthday today.
If you are an expat employed by a Dutch company, sooner or later you will discover an unusual installation upon your arrival at the office in the morning. Somebody’s desk area – it might even be your own – will be festively decorated with strings of colorful hanging flags suspended from above, while the chair may be festooned with paper streamers and balloons. When the desk’s occupant enters the office, everyone will immediately approach him or her, beaming with smiles, offering a handshake or a hug and warm congratulations. Don’t get the wrong idea: the circus has not come to town, and nobody has gotten a promotion. The big news is that someone you work with has a birthday today. It’s a signal to put them on a pedestal, take time out to honor them, and enjoy some communal coffee and cake together.
Star for a day
The ritual of celebrating birthdays in the work place is deeply embedded in Dutch business culture. Every department secretary is responsible for keeping an updated list of employee birthdays, and he or she decorates their work station before they arrive on the morning of their special day. If it’s your birthday it’s your moment in the spotlight, and you deserve extra attention and appreciation from your colleagues. The birthday ”star” is also expected to behave according to time honored rules. It is essential that he or she brings a respectable cake to the office, which is shared by all at coffee break at the end of the morning. During this communal moment, songs may be sung, birthday plans revealed and optional gifts presented. If in addition, drinks will be shared at the end of the day either in or out of the office, it is the birthday celebrant who pays the bill.
This charming tradition with its decorations, sweets and songs, resembles a condensed and streamlined kids birthday party. It is a sincere expression of the Dutch view of professional relationships, which strikes a balance between valuing the person as well as the tasks they are responsible for. Although taking time out to celebrate birthdays on a workday, however briefly, does present a distraction and interruption of the workflow, it provides a context for warm and personal social contact. This creates cohesion in the group. Thanks to your birthday, you are at least one day a year seen, heard and respected just for who you are, not for what you do.
Birthdays, time and money
In contrast to the cozy Dutch tradition, birthdays in the workplace in the USA are regarded as something that is okay to acknowledge if you have the time, but above all, don’t let it interfere with productivity. Because in the States time is money.
So if you’re lucky you might hear a hearty “Happy Birthday” said out loud by someone within earshot at the office, but don’t expect them to take their eyes off of their computer screen as they convey their best wishes to you. Or they might not waste time with that and just send you an email from across the room. If it’s a significant birthday, you might be dutifully joined by some colleagues for a drink after work – and lucky you, they will pay the bill!
Not all companies are as unfriendly in their view of birthdays. The ROI of employee appreciation is not overlooked, and so many employers will take the route of presenting a plant or a gift card to show they care, or post birthday greetings on the company intranet.
Birthday Team Building
Other U.S. companies will seize the opportunity for team building activities, by bundling all birthdays into once a month lunchtime celebrations. Sometimes it will be a pot-luck affair, which requires everyone to volunteer to contribute something to the meal. Employees can hone their leadership skills by rotating the role of coordinator of the event. Once the large buffet meal is laid out, those who have a birthday that month get the privilege of being first in line to pile the food onto their plates.
Unlike the Netherlands, bringing your own cake to the office on your birthday would be considered somewhat pathetic. Either someone else is thoughtful enough to bring it in your honor, or it just doesn’t happen. This can be stressful because it becomes a litmus test of one’s popularity at the office. People are left wondering if anyone will remember that it is their birthday, or if anyone in the office likes them enough to care about it. If a colleague does supply a birthday cake, there is generally no special moment of togetherness to share it. The cake is sliced without any fanfare, and left on a plate in a back room, where employees are free to help themselves to a piece throughout the day.
In Part II of Dutch vs. American Birthdays in the Workplace, we will cover some of the polarizing issues related to this topic in the USA. We’ll also take a deeper look at how celebrating birthdays reflects the group vs. individual preferences of both cultures.
My first In-Coaching blogpost - Thriving at the Top, was about the four cornerstones of thriving in the workplace : Growth, Health, Appeal, and Spatial Comfort.
These four perspectives can provide you with a useful checklist for monitoring your well-being on the job. However, the cultivation of a thriving existence is rooted in something deeper: Self-empowerment.
The opposite of thriving is surviving. Survival mode is activated in response to an extreme depowering event (crisis), in which basic human needs are undermined or denied altogether. In some cases life itself is at stake. Our adrenaline kicks in and hooks up our spare battery, channeling our energy reserves. We are able to make split second decisions followed by quick action.
Depowerment in the Workplace
While the work setting generally offers protection against life threatening situations, we can find ourselves routinely faced with moments or periods of depowerment on the job. The source is often external, such as a bullying boss, a company culture that promotes mistrust, new computer systems that don't function, or workspaces that are too noisy. We can also be depowered by our own thoughts, such as I don't deserve this promotion.
A knee-jerk reaction to depowering situations is to kick into survival mode, and that will work for awhile. The problem is sustainability. If you are continuously operating on high alert and hooked up to your spare battery, there is no chance for recharging. Your energy becomes depleted, your concentration diminishes, and the efforts you are expending are increasingly disproportionate to the results you are getting. Lurking just around the corner is burnout.
Freedom to Make Choices
While you may not be able to eliminate the source of the depowerment you are experiencing, you can choose another response to the situation. The key to transforming surviving to thriving is self-empowerment. This means cultivating an attitude that actively seeks options for change. In contrast to the cramped and frustrating sensations of depowerment, self-empowerment is expressed through the freedom to make choices that promote our own well-being.
Redirect Your Energy
How do you flick the switch to the self-empowerment mindset? The first step is to redirect your energy away from struggling against a depowering situation. Struggle is tiring- physically, mentally and emotionally. This doesn't mean you are agreeing with the behavior, policy or environment which you find depowering. But you can avail yourself of new reserves of energy by accepting that the situation exists. The new surplus of energy will nourish the thinking you need to take responsibility for your own empowered choice. In the words of Deepak Chopra, ''Responsibility means the ability to have a creative response to the situation as it is now."1
A creative response is anything that is not the usual default reaction. For example, instead of avoiding that colleague who seems to be undermining your work, you could invite him/her out to lunch. If your workspace is too noisy you can decide to wear noise-cancelling earphones at your desk. Is it taking longer to reach colleagues because contact information is out of date? Why not start an initiative to circulate updates?
Some actions might take you out of your comfort zone, or trigger surprised reactions from colleagues. What matters though is your outcome; rebooted motivation and a greater sense of autonomy in the workplace. That's self-empowerment!
What Do I Need?
Like anything worthwhile, reacting to challenges from a perspective of self- empowerment takes practice. A useful starting point when you find yourself in a depowering situation is to ask yourself the question ''What do I need?"
All answers are valid, even if all of those needs cannot be met immediately. You may not be able to instantly meet the need of lying on a beach in Greece, although hidden in that wish could be some sound advice to yourself to consider taking a vacation soon. But, I need to close my door and lie down on the floor for a few minutes to relax and clear my mind. is an expression of personal empowerment because you are making a decision to break form and do something different.
Operating within your own sphere of influence, there are many more options than you are aware of. What matters is not how big the action is, but that there is any action at all
There's a famous saying: If you always do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always got. Self-empowerment is the ability to identify your own needs and consciously make a choice to do something different in response. It's an invitation to be creative and practice out-of-the box thinking. Above all, it's the key to a thriving approach to life and work.
1. Ask yourself What do I need?
2. Take a (small) action to make a change.
1 Deepak Chopra, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, Amber-Allen Publishing, 1994
Lisa Ross-Marcus is an Executive Life Coach and Cross-Cultural Consultant based
Imagine a much anticipated business meeting. After weeks of preparation, you are about to give an important presentation to an international team of colleagues.
Although everyone recognizes that their participation in this meeting is important, some strange things are going on. Five of the twelve team members are wearing identical bags over their heads. Two members of the team refuse to identify themselves at all, and sit with their backs facing the group. One person has come to the meeting wearing his pajamas while another member of the team did not show up and nobody knows how to get in touch with her. The meeting proceeds anyway as planned, but you are left with a queasy feeling afterwards. Were they really listening to my report? Did we all agree on the next steps? Do I actually know who was there?
If this scenario seems outlandish, think again. Because what is being described is a virtual meeting - a technology enabled gathering of individuals, often from diverse cultural backgrounds, connecting up from locations all over the globe. And although the kinds of symbolic attitudes and behaviors portrayed would be bizarre and clearly counterproductive during meetings in person, they are routinely accepted and unchallenged in the world of virtual communication.
A thoughtful and deliberate approach
How did this double standard arise? My take on it is that the technical possibilities for doing business virtually have evolved much faster than agreements about how to use them. What many people don't realize is that communicating through virtual channels needs a more thoughtful and deliberate approach than meetings in person, especially when crossing cultures. Besides being able to adapt your communication style to accommodate cultural differences, there are both technical and procedural factors which contribute to optimal virtual conversations.
One of the most basic yet overlooked ways to increase the effectiveness of virtual conferencing is to establish consistent standards about how participants identify themselves. When using a conferencing platform such as Skype or Webex, deciding whether or not to indicate your name clearly and post a photo of yourself and/or use a webcam when joining a meeting is often left up to the individual. The result is a lopsided conversation where some of the voices are anchored in a clear name and image while others are abstract and elusive. You may assume that everyone knows your voice and therefore knows who you are, but virtual conversations demand extra concentration, and people are often too busy trying to follow the content to try to figure out who is speaking. Or the opposite can happen - too much attention goes to trying to understand who is speaking, which can result in missing the content of the message.
When you are involved in a virtual meeting where your primary role is that of listener, such as a presentation or a webinar, identifying yourself clearly to whomever is leading the session is not just a sign of courtesy. Don't rule out the possibility that you might want to follow up with some questions or proposals to this person, or you might have some business dealings with them the future. The fact that you know who they are but they have no idea who you are could be awkward - or worse.
Closing the gap of sensory input
Providing visual information about yourself in conversations also resonates on a neurological level. When all we have is the sound of a voice to go on, many of the signals that help us to understand each other, such as appearance, body language, mood and context, are absent. So whether you are communicating by phone, conference call or through a computer, a visual reference of a video feed or a photo serves the vital purpose of closing the gap created by physical distance and lack of sensory input.
Particularly when working with colleagues located in other parts of the world, giving a visual impression of yourself is the first step to cultural bridge-building. You may never have the opportunity to meet each other in person, so a photo or a webcam answers the basic human need to be able to connect a face to a voice.
''I look terrible on photos''
When I broach this topic during trainings, there are inevitably some small ''aha'' moments followed by a commitment to post a photo portrait and start using webcams as much as possible. There are also some understandably more reticent reactions: "I look terrible on photos",
"I don't like to see myself on camera.", "We can't dress casually if our customers can see us", or ''Nobody knows how to use the webcam on the conference equipment.", to mention a few.
While the above sentiments are real, they do reveal a basic misconception about virtual interactions: that digital distance somehow lets us off the hook when it comes to being a totally committed partner in a professional conversation. Would you really consider delivering a report to your boss in your pyjamas? Would you arrive at a customers office wearing a mask because you don't like how you look that day, and proceed to give a presentation with equipment you have never bothered to learn how to use?
So by following the rule of thumb to engage in every virtual conversation with the same degree of alertness and commitment as if it was a face to face encounter, making yourself more "digitally visible'' takes on a new kind of urgency.
If you are still on the fence about raising your visual profile, it could be useful to reflect on your role and your purpose in the conversation / presentation. What could be the advantage of providing a visual reference to yourself in terms of getting your message across, or persuading others to agree with your point of view ? What could be the costs - short term and long term - of keeping a low profile visually, making it harder to distinguish your voice from others in a discussion. To what extent could that undermine you? Is there also some benefit to you?
6 tips for optimizing your personal ID on virtual channels
Remember: what you think and what you have to say is important, so make sure you are clearly identifiable as the source. Don't be satisfied with a white silhouette against a grey background. You are more than that! Take ownership of your virtual presence and start showing your face today.
Lisa Ross-Marcus is an Executive Life Coach and Intercultural Consultant based
Finally my website has been launched, and with it my first official In-Coaching blogpost . What better way to introduce myself than to provide some insight into the meaning of my slogan ''Thriving at the Top".
Survive or Thrive
From the very beginning of my work as an executive coach and cross-cultural trainer I have been interested in the notion of ''thriving'' in the workplace. The phrase ''survive or thrive'' is a handy expression of the contrast between an automatic pilot attitude of ''I'll get through this" on the one hand, and a present, energized and flexible approach to daily challenges on the other. The eager and open-minded conviction that "I love what I'm doing, I'm good at it and I accept that I can make mistakes and learn from them " is the hallmark of a thriving mindset.
A call to ''thrive at the top" is both a reinforcement of our right to pleasure and satisfaction on the job, and an invitation to keep realizing own unique potential.
We are not only capable of more than we think we are; we are able to venture out of our comfort zone, strive to achieve new goals AND retain a sense of well-being in the process. It's about being at the ''top of your game'' and in a way that sustains your energy instead of depleting it.
I'm not talking idealism, I'm talking strategy.
Thriving 101: The Basics
How can you thrive at the top? To thrive means to flourish, to be ''doing well ". The basics of thriving are easy to observe in nature when seeds release thier green shoots upwards through the soil. Like flowering plants , we are thriving when we are:
Growing - Do you have the opportunity to keep developing your professional skills? Is there enough variety in your package of daily tasks. Do you get ''stretch'' assignments? To what extent are you able to align your personal ambitions with your role and responsibilities at work?
Healthy - Do you get enough sleep ? Do you have time to eat breakfast and lunch at a relaxed pace, away from your desk ? Do you keep physically fit? Do you take a break, even a short one, to leave your desk and go outside for some fresh air, once or twice daily?
Attractive - Do your colleagues enjoy being with you and working with you? Are you easily approachable? Do people feel appreciated by you? Do you take care of your appearance?
Have enough space - Just as plants choke and wither when they are too close together, we humans also need space in order to thrive. This could be physical space: the ergonomics of your desk and chair, your proximity to other colleagues, even the sense of space created by the amount of light and fresh air circulation in the room. And let's not forget mental space: the ability to work without constant interruptions, having a manageable workload and enough time for planning, creative problem-solving and developing new ideas.
Using these four cornerstones of thriving, you can already make an inventory about your own situation. To what degree are you already thriving ? Which areas need more attention from you? Which of these have you not even considered unti now ?
To be realistic, you are part of a bigger interdependent system, and you will often find yourself subjected to less than optimal conditions for thriving. This could be sitting in a stuffy airless meeting room, chairs crammed too close together around a table, being beseiged by a steady stream of interruptions at the office or at home, skipping visits to the gym because of project deadlines, etc. What's important is not maintaining a perfect thriving regimen, but knowing what you need in order to thrive, so at the first opportunity, you can do something about it.
Awareness of the basics is only part of the to thriving at the top. Because growth, health, attractiveness and a spatial comfort in the workplace cannot be cultivated without a fundamental sense of '' personal empowerment''.
Empowerment is simply the freedom to make choices.
It is your capacity to strike a positive balance between your own needs and the needs of your environment. It's absence, known as ''depowerment'' is most often what is lurking behind job dissatisfaction, low morale, undermining behavior and ultimately burn-out.
In my next blogpost I will go into more depth about the relationship between personal empowerment and ''Thriving at the Top."
Until then, I invite you to think about this:
What is one thing you can do today to promote your own ''thriving at the top"?
Lisa Ross-Marcus, founder of In-Coaching, is an executive life coach and a intercultural trainer.