Yum or Yuck?

Yum or Yuck?

Here’s an excerpt from Phil’s upcoming book on the Hero Assumption for your reading pleasure.

I’ve told my wife Janet she should put “demotivational speaker” on her LinkedIn profile. “If you’re not cryin’, you’re not tryin’,” she used to prod our daughter when she was growing up–while she was in tears. But it’s not Janet’s fault. She comes by it naturally. She learned her coaching style from her dad.

Some people think the lemonade glass is always half-full. Others see the glass as half-empty. Then there was my father-in-law; may he rest in peace. He was more of an “Is that lemonade or a urine sample?” kind of guy.

When Janet and I found out we were pregnant with our daughter, we were excited to tell her mom and dad. They lived in Florida, so we had to deliver the news by phone. We figured Janet should be the one to tell them. That was our first mistake—she was nervous, and her parents weren’t always the easiest to talk with. Her dad answered the phone. Starting with him was our second mistake. He was an engineer and really smart but sometimes a little slow on the uptake when it came to people stuff.

Janet jumped right in. She made sure her mom was in earshot so they could both hear at the same time, which made things a little awkward from the start. Then she got right to it—sort of. “Well, Phil and I wanted to let you know that I took a pregnancy test. And it came back…,” followed by an awkward silence.

I’ve only had one chance to do a pregnancy reveal, but if I had to do it over again, I wouldn’t bury the lead by talking about the pregnancy test. Because at the end of the awkward silence, Janet just blurted out, “POSITIVE!” Her mom, who was listening in the background, immediately figured out what was happening and started screaming. Her dad confusedly asked, “Positive for WHAT?”

I’m not sure what other conditions her dad thought pregnancy tests identified, but he was definitely thinking more about the urine sample than the full glass!

Some leaders are a lot like my father-in-law, always looking at the glass half-empty (or worse). It’s easy to do. Leaders today–especially frontline leaders–often feel powerless. Squeezed between demands from above and below, they don’t believe they can make a real difference in the lives of those they lead.

Frustrated, stretched-thin, and often burned out, they assume the worst about their teammates. They watch their team like a hawk, waiting for a screw-up they know is bound to happen. They habitually look at the glass half-empty. Some days, it’s lemonade, and other days…well, you get the picture.

Most leaders don’t want to be glass-half-empty types whose approach reinforces a terrible “race to the bottom” culture. They want something more. They want to reap the benefits of their hard work and see their teammates thrive. They want to feel like they matter. And they do.

Yum and Yuck

“There are only two mantras, yum and yuck. Mine is yum.”
Tom Robbins 

Novelist Tom Robbins offers a great way to describe the difference between glass-half-empty and glass-half-full leaders. Before I started writing my last book, The Approachability Playbook, I spent a couple of years asking anyone who would listen to me this question (nerd alert): “What do you think is the one leadership ring to rule them all?”

One day, one of my friends replied, “You know, I’m not sure this is the one ring, but a mentor of mine taught me this test he used that would immediately tell him whether someone would be a good manager.” I was all ears.

“He would have the potential manager imagine that a coworker comes up and makes a factual statement they know is flat out wrong,” she explained, “something every employee should know. And then he’d ask them, ‘what’s the first thing that comes into your head?’”

Take a second and imagine this for yourself.

What comes up? Is your first instinct to correct their mistake? To tell them what they got wrong? Did you wonder how they could be so off-base? Deep down, did you think they might not be that bright? That’s the mantra of yuck. That’s what I call the Villain Assumption.

Leaders who make the Hero Assumption believe everyone on their team wants to be great and to do great work. They choose the mantra of “yum.” They handle situations like these with curiosity. They wonder, “What are they seeing that I’m not seeing?” They ask questions. “Does this person have the facts right?” They are open to the idea that maybe they’re the one who needs to adjust something. They try to learn.

They see a world of possibility and abundance, not a zero-sum world of limitation and scarcity. Their assumption is ALWAYS that their teammates are smart, capable, and on top of things. When they look at their teammates, they think “yum,” not “yuck.”

This is a chance to remind your teammates of their talent and how they’ve overcome obstacles in the past. It’s a time to remind them that you believe in them and then pitch in to help in any way you can. Leaders who think “yuck” see this as a failure of someone who just doesn’t “get it.”

A boss who makes the Villain Assumption sees someone going above and beyond and thinks, “Yuck, this go-getter is going to show me up or expect some favor in return.” A leader making the Hero Assumption thinks, “Yum,” and makes sure this contribution is noticed, celebrated, and appreciated. They make a mental note to remind their teammate of this success in the future when an obstacle gets in their way.

The key to being a great leader? Don’t think “Yuck,” think “Yum.”

Conversation Skills that Connect? Here’s the Secret

Conversation Skills that Connect? Here’s the Secret

Conversation Skills that Connect? Here’s the Secret

Years ago, I had a consulting assignment in New Jersey where my office was directly across from a tool crib. Every morning when I walked by, I would greet the guy working the crib and he and I would put our conversation skills to the test with the following interaction:

“How you doin’?”

“I’m doin’ good. How you doin’?”

“I’m doin’ good.”

I then would proceed to listen to that exact conversation for hours. Every time someone walked up to the tool crib, exact same conversation.

That is called a “scripted interaction” and it’s probably the most comfortable of all conversations. It is called scripted because it follows a script. When I say, “How you doin’?” you automatically know the right answer. And if you answer off-script (“Oh man, I’m glad you asked, I’ve got this terrible rash, can you take a look at it and tell me if you think it’s something I should be concerned about…”) that conversation can quickly turn awkward because you went off the script.

I think of scripted interactions as kind of a social lubricant. They let you go throughout your day interacting with strangers in almost any situation and feel sociable but comfortable at the same time. But scripted interactions are a crutch, and they definitely don’t lead to connection or good conversations. They are really designed to avoid connection.

We all have scripted interactions throughout our day. But when you are talking with your team (or anyone else in your life who you want to feel connection with) you should avoid scripted conversations. And this is where some leaders get uncomfortable, because it requires some good conversation skills. Some people are naturally comfortable conversationalists, but many are not.

Building Your Conversation Skills

You know how critical good communication is to building connection with your team. And the primary tool in a leader’s toolbox for strong communication is conversation skills. It’s why so many of the experiential exercises we do during our approachable leadership workshop center around conversation skills.

But many of us aren’t naturally comfortable with a conversation. And if a conversation is getting awkward one of two things happens. Option one is silence, which for most feels super awkward. Many conversations just end when the talking stops. Others default to option two, filling any empty space talking about our favorite subject: ourselves. After all, this is a topic we know a lot about, and can talk about at length when given the chance or a willing participant.

Talking about yourself, especially if your partner isn’t also talking about themself, reduces connection even more than a scripted interaction. At least in a scripted conversation both sides know connection isn’t the goal. This is especially true when power distance is wide.

One way to build great conversation skills is asking good questions. At the end of our workshop we ask participants to name their top takeaway from the day. One of the most common is our 3 questions of approachable leaders (Do you have what you need? What would make work better? What’s next?) While those are great questions, only asking those questions would quickly get old. But I recently ran across an article by Jeff Haden that offers a great, science-backed way to ensure your everyday conversations with teammates are comfortable and grow connection.

Haden reviews a 2017 Harvard study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. This study looked at the likeability of people after different types of conversations. The study concludes that asking questions, especially follow-up questions, as the key to connection during these conversations.

The study concludes:

“People spend most of their time during conversations talking about their own viewpoints and tend to self-promote when meeting people for the first time. In contrast, high question-askers—those that probe for information from others—are perceived as more responsive and are better liked. Although most people do not anticipate the benefits of question-asking and do not ask enough questions, people would do well to learn that it doesn’t hurt to ask.”

The Harvard researchers conducted 4 different experiments in a variety of settings. They asked participants of the conversations as well as outside observers to rate the likeability of participants. Note that one of these conversations was speed-dating. We’ve talked before about the importance of approachability not only at work, but in all the relationships in your life – including the romantic kind. Once again, that is supported by research.

The reason questions – especially follow-up questions – are so important is that they increase the perceived responsiveness of the questioner. The study states:

“…we identify follow-up questions as an important behavioral indicator of responsiveness, and we find that asking a higher rate of follow-up questions reliably predicts partner liking.”

How to Ask the Three Questions

It’s probably no surprise to you that good conversationalists are good at asking questions. Haden in his article offers some good practical tips to get better at follow up questions. I encourage you to start there. Haden’s suggestions relate more to a conversation you might have with someone at a party or networking event. Here are some tips for applying the “3 question” strategy at work.

After starting with your version of “How ya doin’?” you start with an icebreaker question. You can start with some simple icebreakers like:

  • What are you working on today?
  • How’s the schedule looking today?
  • Anything crazy happening today?

These initial questions are just meant to get a conversation started and are still somewhat scripted interactions. You can also ask some non-scripted questions right up front to get the person to open up. Some of my favorites include:

  • Anything exciting going on in your life right now?
  • You going anywhere fun this year?
  • What are you looking forward to these days?

These questions are open-ended and forward looking, so they are likely to begin a good conversation. But you may be talking to someone who you know might not be looking forward to much (that’s especially true during a pandemic). You can always adjust questions like these:

  • How is your family doing?
  • What’s the best thing going on in your world these days?
  • Have you had a chance to [name of activity they enjoy] lately?
  • Are you watching/listening/reading anything new?

Once you’ve asked the icebreaker now is the time to take advantage of what you learned in the Harvard study – ask some follow up questions. Sometimes the answer will have some obvious follow up questions. But if the follow up is not obvious it is good to have some backup questions just in case. Hader suggests a good one: “That sounds hard – how do you do that?” Here are a few others to add to your toolbox:

  • How are you dealing with that?
  • What are you doing to get ready?
  • How did you come up with that?
  • How did you learn to do that?
  • What got you interested in that?
  • Is that hard to do?

You can also use the simple phrase, “tell me more.” The good news is that the Harvard study found there’s no certain number or type of questions that increase likability. It appears that simply asking questions shows others that you are taking an interest in them and give them a chance to talk about their favorite subject: themselves.

Burnout: How Approachable Leaders Reduce Burnout

Burnout: How Approachable Leaders Reduce Burnout

Burnout: How Approachable Leaders Reduce Burnout

“A drowning lifeguard isn’t much help.” Seth Godin

Burnout was a frequently cited reason for turnover before the pandemic, but it’s clearly much worse now. In a recent survey, nearly everyone (95% of those surveyed) said they are thinking about quitting their job.  One-third of them cited burnout as the number one reason.

The pandemic completely changed the world, especially the world of work

We probably won’t fully understand the impact for decades. And as governments and companies continue to battle the pandemic with additional requirements at work, especially vaccine and mask requirements, the stress is only likely to increase. This is especially true in healthcare environments, which were near the breaking point before and have faced the most stress of any industry over the last 18 months.

Along with the increase in burnout, the employment market has seismically altered, and there is no reason to believe we’re ever returning to anything remotely resembling 2019. There are many reasons for this seismic shift. Many people could not perform their chosen work at all during months of the pandemic. Some were forced or chose to move to other geographic regions.

Others began or remain working from home and have decided they’re never going back, even if it means changing jobs or careers. Many people left the job market entirely, choosing to quit or retire instead of risking their health at work. Many have been forced to completely rethink their finances and whether they really need to support their pre-Covid income and lifestyle.

People are voting with their feet

This exodus from the job market means those who remain have new-found leverage, opportunity, and often prioritize work differently. This puts employers in a desperate situation. As people leave the workplace it adds additional strain on those who remain. Standards slip just to fill open roles, which can create further stress on incumbent employees. And if the workplace becomes too stressful people are much more likely to vote with their feet, which is why turnover is reaching historic proportions.

Research suggests there are six primary contributors to workplace burnout. Those are:

  1. Workload
  2. Perceived lack of control
  3. Reward
  4. Community
  5. Fairness
  6. Values mismatch

The good news is there is a way out of this mess

Employers have a lot of control over reducing workplace burnout. And each of the six causes of burnout are all markedly improved by an approachable leader. We teach several tools that impact these 6 areas, but the one I’ll focus on here are the 3 questions of approachable leaders.

  • Do you have what you need? This question opens up conversations about control, fairness, values, and community.
  • What would make work better? Asking this will reveal concerns about workload, reward and fairness.
  • What’s next? You’ll learn a lot about values and community when you talk to someone about their development and goals.

As leaders we cannot change much of the conditions that lead to stress in the workplace. Many of these are out of our control. But what we can change is the conversations we have with our teammates, and the outlets we give them for dealing with that stress. And our research shows over and over that approachable leaders have teams that remain engaged, happy and, most important, don’t quit (71% lower turnover intention).

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once said, “If I accept you as you are, I make you worse; however, if I treat you as though you are what you are capable of becoming I help you become that.” An approachable leader helps teammates face the challenges and stresses of the day and not accept them, but instead use them as opportunities to learn and grow.

Business Outcomes of Approachability: New Study

Business Outcomes of Approachability: New Study

Business Outcomes of Approachability: New Study

My former intern, Josh Royes Ph.D. and I wrote a research paper on the business outcomes (turnover, organizational citizenship behavior, and organizational satisfaction) seen in organizations with approachable leaders, one of many studies that support the importance of leader approachability. The study examined whether leader approachability impacts these organizational outcomes above and beyond factors like pay satisfaction and work conditions satisfaction.

We conducted the research using 7,728 participants spread across 48 locations in 3 different companies. Short answer: leader approachability has a big positive impact on these critical workplace measures. A couple of my favorite findings from the research:

A more practical way to understand the impact Approachability has on these important workplace outcomes is using a bivariate effect calculation.  For example, the correlation of -.50 between Approachability and turnover intention means that this study suggests that 75% of leaders will be either high Approachability-low turnover or low Approachability-high turnover.  The .55 correlation between Approachability and OCB means that 77.5% of leaders will be either high Approachability-high OCB or low Approachability-low OCB.  The correlation of .56 between Approachability and organization satisfaction means that 78% of leaders will be either high Approachability-high organization satisfaction or low Approachability-low organization satisfaction.  Thinking about correlations this way highlights the practical significance of Approachability.

Another important finding:

The results for hypothesis 3 are very important.  They indicate that Approachability predicts turnover intention, OCB, and organization satisfaction beyond workplace conditions satisfaction and pay satisfaction.  Additionally, Approachability was as important in predicting these outcomes as improving satisfaction with workplace conditions or pay.  While providing solid pay and working conditions is clearly effective, it is not without downsides. Improving work conditions and increasing pay often require significant investments that can be dismissed by employees over time (i.e., “what have you done for me lately?”)  It is uncertain if the short-term improvements would outweigh the cost.  Additionally, satisfaction with pay and workplace conditions may not rise linearly with changes to pay or workplace conditions, further reducing potential return on these investments.

On the other hand, training leaders to improve their approachability requires a smaller investment that continues to reap benefits with each daily interaction between leaders and their teams.  It is also possible that increasing leader approachability also increases employees’ satisfaction with their pay or workplace conditions, since the three constructs are moderately related.  Additionally, training a leader can help the leader fulfill psychological needs of their employees, whereas pay satisfaction and workplace satisfaction are merely contextual factors.  This could be a distinction of more internalized motivators as compared with external motivators (Gagne & Deci, 2005).

Therefore, targeting leaders with Approachable Leadership training is less expensive than improving the work environment or increasing pay and yields similar if not better results.  Our results suggest an organization struggling with high turnover, low OCB, or low organization satisfaction (or all three), should strongly consider targeting leader approachability as a viable and effective method to remedy these issues.

I encourage you to check out the entire research paper. You can find it at the link below.

Leader Approachability: Reduced Turnover and Other Business Outcomes (Approachable Leadership 2021)

Burnout: How Approachable Leaders Reduce Burnout

4 Simple Steps to Solve Workplace Negativity

4 Simple Steps to Solve Workplace Negativity

How do you deal with workplace negativity?

“Why is he always so negative about everything? He’s got such a terrible attitude!”

Do you ever deal with a coworker who’s a regular source of workplace negativity? Or someone with a bad attitude?

At some point every leader deals with workplace negativity. Sometimes it’s a passing thing. A blow-up over an unexpected change at work. Sometimes a personal situation bleeds into the workplace and leads to negativity. And sometimes you have a teammate who sees the glass half-empty.

Workplace negativity can quickly drag a team down. But it doesn’t have to. If you lead a teammate who sometimes (or even regularly) exhibits a bad attitude, there are some practical ways you can turn things around.

Run to the Smoke

Step one is hard. Run to the smoke, before workplace negativity creates a larger fire.

Humans avoid conflict. “Fight or flight” instincts trigger when a negative person makes a snide comment or shoots down an idea. Some go into “fight” mode, which escalates the conflict. Many of us go into “flight” mode, ignoring the comment. Others save our comments for the “meeting after the meeting,” where we complain about the complainer. None of these approaches are productive.

It is important to engage these negative comments directly. Channel your inner Jerry Brown.

Jerry Brown had a strange habit for a politician. Anytime Brown saw protesters he would walk up to them. Then he asked a simple question, “What’s on your mind?” Brown would politely listen to the protesters explain their grievances.

Once Governor Brown believed he understood the complaint, he didn’t argue. He didn’t try to persuade the protesters to his side. Instead, he explained his understanding of their issue back to them – often more persuasively than they did. He proved he fully understood their point of view. Then he’d head to his event.

Make the Hero Assumption

The Governor’s approach is very similar to what we teach leaders in our Workshops. One important behavior we teach – that Brown clearly adopts – is the Hero Assumption.

It is easy for leaders to make negative assumptions about employee behavior – what we call the Villain Assumption. A leader making the Villain Assumption might think, “Everyone’s struggling right now, why can’t they just get on board? They’re always so selfish.”

A leader making the Hero Assumption instead believes that negative behavior comes from a good place. This person really cares and wants things to be great. Governor Brown didn’t assume protesters had negative intent. Instead he acknowledged the legitimacy of their complaints. It is important for leaders to fight the urge to assume negative intent, and it’s especially critical during today’s trying times. If you make the hero assumption – knowing that your teammate wants to be great – then your approach and the questions you ask will be different.

Stop, Listen, Confirm

Hopefully your negative teammate isn’t outside your office carrying a picket sign or interrupting your next meeting yelling slogans with a bullhorn. But Jerry Brown’s approach is a great way to deal with negativity.

Brown shows empathy with his negative constituents. He doesn’t expect them to change their mind or agree with him. But he does want them to feel like he took time to understand. That he carefully considered what they had to say and perhaps he might change his mind.

We teach the Stop, Listen, Confirm model for these situations.

Seek Understanding Using the SLC Technique

If your teammate has a complaint or something negative to say, ask what’s bothering them and then truly listen to understand. This can be difficult for leaders who often go into problem-solving mode before their teammate has finished their story. That creates even more negativity.

Instead use the Stop-Listen-Confirm (SLC) technique. While your teammate tells their story, commit to being fully present. Stop everything else and give your full attention. Actively listen to the whole story.

Then, before you say anything else, complete this phrase: “You feel [emotional state] because of [summary of situation]. Do I have that right?” If you discipline yourself to do this, it will transform your conversations with negative teammates.

Ask Better Questions

Now that you’re making the hero assumption you won’t blame your teammate for their bad attitude. Instead you’ll seek to understand what’s going on that’s causing the negativity. You’ll recall times they were positive and engaged. They’ll be much more likely to tell you what’s going on.

Once you’ve confirmed understanding you can then ask questions to help clarify what might change their attitude. Here are three simple questions to get you started:

  • Do you have what you need?
  • What would make work better?
  • What’s next?

These simple questions lead to much more positive conversations, especially when they come from a sincere place of caring from the leader.

Prepare to Change Your Mind

I first heard the Jerry Brown story a few years ago when Tim Ferris interviewed Stewart Brand, founder of the Whole Earth Catalog. Ferris calls Stewart the “Polymath of Polymaths” – he’s an incredibly interesting guy. Near the end of this interview Brand turns to the subject of the power and courage of changing one’s mind and told the story about Jerry Brown.

It is important for you, as a leader, to be prepared to change your mind. You should especially be willing to change your mind about the attitude of someone creating “workplace negativity.” The vast majority of situations where someone turns negative are resolvable.

The Takeaway

One of our core values is Teamwork. We define that as, “to embrace healthy conflict and then commit wholeheartedly to our path.” Healthy conflict can feel like negativity, but this is wrong-headed. Instead you should embrace healthy conflict. You can do that if you:

  1. Run to the Smoke (don’t avoid a negative teammate to avoid conflict – engage with and try to understand them);
  2. Make the Hero Assumption (make sure you aren’t creating a negative workplace by always assuming the best about your teammates);
  3. Stop, Listen, Confirm (channel your inner Jerry Brown and seek to truly understand negative behavior – if you can’t explain how your teammate feels you may be part of the problem);
  4. Ask Better Questions with an Open Mind (ask great questions and truly seek to learn and be fully prepared to change your mind).

You got this. And if you have any negative feedback, I’m all ears 🙂


Do you have any teammates who have a negative attitude? How do you handle workplace negativity? Do you embrace healthy conflict or avoid it? Let us know in the comments.

Nurse Innovation Up 74% When Led By Approachable Leaders

Nurse Innovation Up 74% When Led By Approachable Leaders

Nurse Innovation Up 74% When Led By Approachable Leaders

A 2019 study of nurses at a hospital in Egypt looked at the impact different nurse leadership styles have on nurse innovation. The study, published in in the American Journal of Nursing Research, considered three different leadership styles:

Transformational leaders achieve high performance cultures by influencing and paying individual attention to followers, being supportive, and encouraging followers to learn and grow. Transactional leaders, on the other hand, motivate primarily through a combination of reward or punishment. Laissez Faire leaders tend to abdicate responsibility don’t really use their power in any consistent way.

Which Leadership Style Gets More Nurse Innovation?

The study looked at whether the leadership style of leaders impacted nurse innovation in units they lead in eight teaching hospitals with a total of 1,954 beds. Researchers randomly surveyed 384 nurses with at least one year of experience (95% confidence interval).

The study found that nurses were more than twice as likely to have a negative perception of their leader if they were Transactional or Laissez Faire. Over 83% of nurses with a Transformational leader had a positive perception of them.

nurse innovation and perception of nurse leadersAbout half of the nurses in the study (49.2%) showed high innovative work behavior levels. The study then looked at which leadership style correlated most with high innovation nurses. Transformational leaders correlated to a nurse exhibiting high innovative work behavior at a 0.489 level of significance. In other words it is 74.45% more likely that a high innovation nurse works for a Transformational leader.

This finding is very consistent with our research of Approachable Leaders. Supervisors rated approachable by those they lead are much more likely to see higher organizational citizenship behavior and lower levels of turnover.

Healthcare systems have a critical need to attract and retain innovative nurses who go above and beyond at work. This study suggests the key way to achieve these results rests in the leadership style of their nurse managers.

If you want to review the study you can find it here.

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