“Shoulding” on Others

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The topic of telling other people what they ought to be doing has come up several times recently. In coaching, we call it “shoulding” on people. Shoulding can actually include the word “should.” For example, I might say, “You should get a haircut” or “You should buy that neon purple shirt.” I can up the ante and make myself really annoying if I point a finger at you while I tell you what you should be doing. Irritating, right?

It can still be shoulding without using the word. For example, I could say, “The only way to peel an orange is in strips, top to bottom” or “Burping loudly is always what works best.” I’m not using the word “should,” but I’m still telling you what you ought to be doing.

I have never coached a person who appreciated being told what he or she “should” do. Honestly, do you like it? I don’t! So why do we insist on doing it to others? I am not entirely sure, but I have a guess.

Most of us like things done a certain way. Of course, the right way is my way – in case you were wondering. In my head, I am not thinking, “It’s important that you do this my way.” The internal dialogue is more along the lines of “This is what would be best for you.” There is a true desire to help, but it is underpinned by a belief that I truly know what is best for you. In fact, that is seldom the case.

It’s important for us all to know and keep in mind that each one of us is an expert on ourselves. We know the best solutions to our own challenges. Our solutions fit with our values, priorities, and strengths. My solution for you is based on my values, priorities, and strengths. It might be a terrible thing for you to do.

We may not always know right off the bat what the best solution is. However, people telling us what we should do does not help. What does help is someone asking us questions. Curious questions about what is going on and what’s important are the most helpful.

When I tell people that I am a life coach, they often ask, “How do you know what to tell people to do?” Hmmm. They don’t understand coaching. I know that each of my clients is naturally creative, resourceful, and whole. They may be stuck or confused, but they are capable of creating their own solutions. A good life coach doesn’t tell people what to do. When I’m coaching, I repeat over and over in my head the phrase “Coach the person, not the problem.” Once I start solving my clients’ problems, I am shoulding on them.

Generally, we should on people because we genuinely want what’s best for them. It’s important to know that: [drum roll] We have no idea what is best for them! Each of us is the best creator of our own solutions.

For clients with shoulding challenges, I encourage them to ask at least three questions before offering a suggestion. Many times the problem is solved during the questions, and providing solutions is averted. Questions that begin with, “Don’t you think it would be a good idea if…” absolutely do not count.

What do we do when someone is shoulding on us? We have options. I have several friends who are shoulders. (Ha! In my head, it’s pronounced shooders! But it’s really shoulders – like by your neck. I love words.) One tells me when it’s clear to pull out when I’m driving. Another tells me exactly what I need to do for marketing messages. Another is very smart – a renaissance woman, and not matter what the topic, she knows what I should do.

For the most part, I’ve just decided not to let their barrage of solutions bother me. They are helping in their own way. I’m like a teenager; I nod my head like I’m agreeing but do whatever I dang well please. The important thing is that I can do this and not get riled up in the least.

Often people aren’t aware of what they are doing. I went on vacation with a fellow coach, and she said something about not shoulding on people. I said, “Are you serious? You should on me all the time!” From that point forward, she would tell me what I ought to do, pause, and then say, “I did it again, didn’t I?” Awareness is the first step for everyone!

When I start to get riled up, it’s time to set some gentle boundaries. It’s usually general. I will say something like, “I appreciate you wanting to help, but I’ve got this.” Even when I tire of being told what to do, I still remember that their intentions are good.

We can also tell people what they should have done in the past. That action is particularly destructive to a relationship. First, we can’t really go back and do it differently. What’s done is done. Second, it’s not helpful. The person who tells you what you should have done in the past is not trying to help you and does not have your best interests at heart. It’s a blame game. A play to make you feel guilty. Distance yourself as much as possible from people who should you about the past.

If it’s a relationship that you want to save, gently ask why they are bringing this up. Also ask in a genuine tone what they want you to do. The answer is often “I don’t know.” Sometimes, it’s just an act of frustration. It’s best to bring it into everyone’s awareness and find out what the root motivation is.

The only exception that I can think of is if the analysis of past behavior is an evaluation that will help change future behavior to create success. Still, you rarely hear an exceptional leader say, “Well, you really should have done that differently.” A more appropriate statement would be, “Let’s look at how you could have gotten a different outcome.”

Here are the points to remember:

  1. People who tell us what we should do are generally trying to help.
  2. We are not helping when we tell others what they should do.
  3. Ask at least three questions before beginning to provide solutions.
  4. Telling people what they should have done in the past is really not helpful and can be damaging to the relationship.
  5. It’s only useful to talk about the past in terms of learning from it. Take the lesson and move on.

Next time we will talk about the common practice of shoulding on ourselves.


For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at PositiveEffectLeadership.com.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.

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Psychological Safety: Final Answer (6 of 6) (Woohoo!)

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I have been discussing my leadership list in depth, and we are up to number six, the last one! My list is a response to Google’s research on the qualities of exceptional teams, as described in Project Aristotle. Here is the list with the bullet points that I’ve discussed so far.

Kathy’s Leadership List

  1. Be present, and show that you care.
  • Focus on keeping your mind present during conversations and meetings.
  • Use good nonverbal communication to assure people that you are listening.
  • Show interest in people’s activities outside of work.
  • Maintain appropriate boundaries for personal discussions.
  1. Enforce and model respect for self and others.
  • Watch vigilantly for situations that make a person or group feel a lack of respect.
  • Talk to employees and peers about disrespectful behavior in an appropriate setting.
  • Behave scrupulously, in a way that always shows respect for others.
  • Establish Designed Alliances whenever possible so that respectful behavior is explicitly defined, expected, and required.
  1. Include others in decision-making as much as possible.
  • People like control. Great leaders give others control as much as possible. Autonomy is motivating.
  • Meeting people’s personal needs to be listened to, understood, and respected creates positive relationships.
  • We make better decisions with more information. People who don’t agree with us can have valuable information to share.
  • After making a decision, a leader should share the reasons behind the decision and their feelings about it.
  • Inclusive decision-making saves more time in the long run.
  1. Ensure individual and team goals are clear and in alignment with organizational goals.
  • Leaders must understand how their group contributes to the overall success of the organization.
  • It’s important to make sure everyone in the group understands how they, as a group, help the organization achieve its goals.
  • Roles and responsibilities must be clear to everyone in the group.
  • Each individual needs to know how he or she makes a difference.
  1. Be consistent, dependable, and positive in your actions, attitude, and mindset.
  • Great leaders are reliable in word and deed.
  • Consistency builds trust.
  • Positive leaders build personal influence.
  1. Make curiosity your default.

So, let’s discuss number six!

Make curiosity your default. I have saved the best and most powerful for last. I wholeheartedly believe in the power of questions.

Many leaders with whom I work have a tendency to make assumptions and jump to conclusions. They are absolutely certain that they know why a thing has happened or a person has done a certain action. Many times, they are completely and totally wrong, yet they work from their assumptions as if they are truth.

We can only move ourselves and our organizations forward if we base our actions and strategies on facts, which is why it is crucial to pause and ask some questions to truly understand a situation. For example, let’s say an employee is consistently late turning in a report. We assume that the person is lazy, inattentive, or has poor time management skills. When the employee tries to talk to us about it, we say, “I don’t want to hear any excuses,” and walk away. It could be that the employee is not getting a crucial piece of information from someone else. Maybe he or she doesn’t understand a required software. If we don’t listen and truly understand what is going on, we are a major part of the problem.

Asking people genuinely curious questions also builds positive relationships. Our personal needs are to be listened to, understood, and respected. We can meet all of those needs by asking people what they think and how they feel about something.

I don’t think I can reiterate enough the power of creating positive relationships. Positivity creates personal influence, which is our preferred means of motivating people. When we use our positional authority with threats, our leadership is limited to what we see and enforce. When we use our personal influence, we motivate people all the time. We don’t have to be present to know that they are doing a good job.

Some leaders feel that asking others for their opinions is a sign of weakness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Leaders who consistently make unilateral decisions without asking for input are generally disliked, not respected. In asking for different perspectives, we are not committing to accept or follow those suggestions. We are listening to people about their area of expertise to make sure we haven’t missed anything. We are also creating the psychological safety needed to encourage people to speak up and contribute.

Here are the bullet points to remember:

  • Great questions give leaders the information that they need to create relevant actions and strategies.
  • Asking for someone’s opinions and feelings on a topic increases the positivity of the relationship.
  • A curious mindset encourages a thoughtful, collaborative work environment.

There you have it — Kathy’s complete leadership list! If you focus on these six things, you can create the exceptional teams described by Google’s Project Aristotle. Remember, the main goal is to create psychological safety in your organization so that every person feels free to share ideas and disagree. You can download my complete list here if you want a one-page reminder to put up in your workplace.


For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at PositiveEffectLeadership.com.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.

Psychological Safety: Final Answer (5)

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I have been discussing my leadership list in depth, and we are up to number five. Only one more to go after this one! My list is a response to Google’s research on the qualities of exceptional teams, as described in Project Aristotle. Here is the list with the bullet points that I’ve discussed so far.

Kathy’s Leadership List

  1. Be present, and show that you care.
  • Focus on keeping your mind present during conversations and meetings.
  • Use good nonverbal communication to assure people that you are listening.
  • Show interest in people’s activities outside of work.
  • Maintain appropriate boundaries for personal discussions.
  1. Enforce and model respect for self and others.
  • Watch vigilantly for situations that make a person or group feel a lack of respect.
  • Talk to employees and peers about disrespectful behavior in an appropriate setting.
  • Behave scrupulously, in a way that always shows respect for others.
  • Establish Designed Alliances whenever possible so that respectful behavior is explicitly defined, expected, and required.
  1. Include others in decision-making as much as possible.
  • People like control. Great leaders give others control as much as possible. Autonomy is motivating.
  • Meeting people’s personal needs to be listened to, understood, and respected creates positive relationships.
  • We make better decisions with more information. People who don’t agree with us can have valuable information to share.
  • After making a decision, a leader should share the reasons behind the decision and their feelings about it.
  • Inclusive decision-making saves more time in the long run.
  1. Ensure individual and team goals are clear and in alignment with organizational goals.
  • Leaders must understand how their group contributes to the overall success of the organization.
  • It’s important to make sure everyone in the group understands how they, as a group, help the organization achieve its goals.
  • Roles and responsibilities must be clear to everyone in the group.
  • Each individual needs to know how he or she makes a difference.
  1. Be consistent, dependable, and positive in your actions, attitude, and mindset.
  2. Make curiosity your default.

So, let’s discuss number five.

Be consistent, dependable, and positive in your actions, attitude, and mindset. There is a lot packed into this one. Let’s start by discussing what it means to be consistent and dependable. We want to be like Horton the elephant in Horton Hatches the Egg by Dr. Seuss. Horton agrees to sit on the egg of the feckless bird Mayzie, who promises to come back. She doesn’t, and Horton stays fast on the egg through all sorts of trials. He stays until it hatches, all the while saying, “I meant what I said, and I said what I meant. An elephant’s faithful, one hundred percent.” We want to show that same determination to keep our word.

Of course, things come up, and life challenges us in ways that make it difficult to do what we way. However, great leaders are careful with their words and only promise what they are sure they can deliver. If we can’t for some reason, then we must apologize and make it right in any way that we can. It’s ok for leaders to make mistakes as long as they acknowledge those mistakes and make sure they don’t happen again.

Behaving in a consistent way can also be a challenge. We want to stay calm and reasonable as much as possible, but we have bad days and trying times in life. However, even through the trials of life, we want to show some emotional maturity and not lash out at others.

We could be consistently awful and negative, but that’s not what I’m going for. That’s why I added “positive” to number five. We want to be reliable and positive. Think about leaders whom you admire and follow without question. Any of them negative people? Mine aren’t. I had one woman in my life who I felt was a wonderful leader, and then something happened and she turned negative. She immediately lost her influence over me.

Just to be clear and complete, I specified that we want to be consistent, dependable, and positive in our actions, attitude, and mindset. Actions are easy to define. We want to act in a positive way that proves to others that we are reliable because when people have faith in us, we build trust and personal influence.

I don’t want to quibble too much about the difference between attitude and mindset. In general, I think that we can have a positive attitude about one thing and a negative attitude about something else. We want to cultivate a positive attitude about as many things as possible.

Once we’ve done that, we’ve gone a long way to developing a positive mindset that encourages us to see challenges as opportunities and have faith that things are going to work out for the best. Great leaders have positive attitudes about people and things at work. They also have positive mindsets about life in general and confidence in themselves and the world. A positive attitude and mindset help us to cultivate personal influence that invites others to follow us.

Here are the bullet points to remember:

  • Great leaders are reliable in word and deed.
  • Consistency builds trust.
  • Positive leaders build personal influence.

We are successful leaders when others have the same confidence in us as they do in the rising sun each morning. Bonus points if we create a positive relationship that conjures the warm fuzzies that coffee drinkers feel towards their first cups. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – leadership is all about creating positive relationships. Positivity, reliability, and consistency are the foundation.


For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at PositiveEffectLeadership.com.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.

Psychological Safety: Final Answer (4)

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I have been discussing my leadership list in depth, and we are up to number four. My list is a response to Google’s research on the qualities of exceptional teams, as described in Project Aristotle. Here is the list with the bullet points that I’ve discussed so far.

Kathy’s Leadership List

  1. Be present, and show that you care.
  • Focus on keeping your mind present during conversations and meetings.
  • Use good nonverbal communication to assure people that you are listening.
  • Show interest in people’s activities outside of work.
  • Maintain appropriate boundaries for personal discussions.
  1. Enforce and model respect for self and others.
  • Watch vigilantly for situations that make a person or group feel a lack of respect.
  • Talk to employees and peers about disrespectful behavior in an appropriate setting.
  • Behave scrupulously, in a way that always shows respect for others.
  • Establish Designed Alliances whenever possible so that respectful behavior is explicitly defined, expected, and required.
  1. Include others in decision-making as much as possible.
  • People like control. Great leaders give others control as much as possible. Autonomy is motivating.
  • Meeting people’s personal needs to be listened to, understood, and respected creates positive relationships.
  • We make better decisions with more information. People who don’t agree with us can have valuable information to share.
  • After making a decision, a leader should share the reasons behind the decision and their feelings about it.
  • Inclusive decision-making saves more time in the long run.
  1. Ensure individual and team goals are clear and in alignment with organizational goals.
  2. Be consistent, dependable, and positive in your actions, attitude, and mindset.
  3. Make curiosity your default.

So, let’s discuss number four.

Ensure individual and team goals are clear and in alignment with organizational goals. Leaders can avoid a lot of conflict and create a lot of motivation by ensuring that individual and team goals are clear and linked to organizational goals. Leaders can start by examining their group’s or team’s goals and then asking, “How do these goals help the organization achieve its goals?” In theory, every department, group, or team should be doing something that helps the organization accomplish its mission. So, it’s up to the leader to determine why his or her group matters. Why are they paid? What do they contribute that helps the organization?

Once the leader has figured out how the group helps the organization achieve success, he or she should make sure that every individual on the team has that information. Everyone needs to know what the group’s goals are and how they fit in with organizational goals.

People like to know that they make a difference. It’s motivating to be part of a team effort to accomplish something. We are more content when we feel that we have and provide value.

The next step for a leader is to look at each individual’s job on the team. It’s important to be able to answer the question “How does this person in this position help our group be successful and meet its goals?” Theoretically, no one should be on the payroll who isn’t helping the group and organization reach their goals. Once again, it’s motivating to know how our contributions fit into the bigger picture.

Next, leaders need to make sure that every person is clear about his or her responsibilities. We can’t be successful if we don’t know what success looks like. Of course, a clear and specific job description is ideal. In the coaching segment of my leadership workshops, I remind leaders that they can only expect people to achieve the minimum performance level outlined in the job description. So, it’s imperative that the job description includes the responsibilities and tasks that contribute to the group’s success. We use our personal influence to encourage higher achievement, but people are only required to do what is in the job description.

Lastly, leaders need to ensure that there is no overlap of duties. I often see conflict in organizations that stems from two people each believing that they are responsible for a task or area. It’s important for a leader to make sure that everyone knows what their lane looks like and that they stay in it – unless they are stepping out to help someone else.

Here are the bullet points to remember:

  • Leaders must understand how their group contributes to the overall success of the organization.
  • It’s important to make sure everyone in the group understands how they, as a group, help the organization achieve its goals.
  • Roles and responsibilities must be clear to everyone in the group.
  • Each individual needs to know how he or she makes a difference.

For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at PositiveEffectLeadership.com.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.

Psychological Safety: Final Answer (3)

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I have been discussing my leadership list in depth, and we are up to number three. My list is a response to Google’s research on the qualities of exceptional teams, as described in Project Aristotle. Here is the list with the bullet points that I’ve discussed so far.

Kathy’s Leadership List

  1. Be present, and show that you care.
  • Focus on keeping your mind present during conversations and meetings.
  • Use good nonverbal communication to assure people that you are listening.
  • Show interest in people’s activities outside of work.
  • Maintain appropriate boundaries for personal discussions.
  1. Enforce and model respect for self and others.
  • Watch vigilantly for situations that make a person or group feel a lack of respect.
  • Talk to employees and peers about disrespectful behavior in an appropriate setting.
  • Behave scrupulously, in a way that always shows respect for others.
  • Establish Designed Alliances whenever possible so that respectful behavior is explicitly defined, expected, and required.
  1. Include others in decision-making as much as possible.
  2. Ensure individual and team goals are clear and in alignment with organizational goals.
  3. Be consistent, dependable, and positive in your actions, attitude, and mindset.
  4. Make curiosity your default.

So, let’s discuss number three.

Include others in decision-making as much as possible. People like to have control over things. I have never met a person in my trainings or coaching who wants no control over how he or she spends his or her time.

When we make unilateral decisions and tell people what they have to do, it usually results in some resentment. Maybe it makes us feel like children who don’t have a say in what happens. We definitely don’t feel that our opinions or needs are valued when our input is not considered.

Including others in the decision-making process is also a great way to create positive relationships. I believe that I’ve mentioned before that creating and maintaining positive relationships is one of the hallmarks of great leadership. There are other benefits, as well.

First, we make better decisions when we have more information. When I work with groups that are having trouble making a decision together, each person has an idea of the problem and the solution. We put everyone’s ideas, feelings, and perspectives out on the table for everyone to consider. We always come up with a better solution than any one that a person brought with them because we are working with all of the information and brainpower of the group.

Second, people have more buy-in. We don’t really get behind decisions if we didn’t have any influence at all during the deciding phase. The best way to get people motivated about a decision is to let them be a part of the process of making it. In Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink points out that autonomy is one way to motivate others. We want to make others feel as in control of their time and day as possible.

If you cannot take anyone’s ideas or feelings into account, make it clear that it’s a done deal. If you just don’t want to, think again. We don’t show strength when we make decisions to look decisive. We show strength when we have enough confidence and grace to ask the opinions of others.

It’s especially important to ask for the opinions and feelings of people whom we believe will disagree with us. One, they may have some really good points that we haven’t considered. Two, we develop positive relationships when we meet someone’s personal needs, which are to be listened to, understood and respected. You will notice that the list does not include “agreed with.” Most people are happy if they feel that you have fully understood their thoughts and feelings and considered them with an open mind, even if you ultimately disagree.

Once we make a decision, it’s important to share the rationale behind it. If we didn’t take someone’s suggestion, it’s best to let them know as soon as possible and to tell them why. If there isn’t a good reason not to take someone’s suggestion, I would suggest doing it. When we are open to the influence of others, we strengthen our relationships with them.

When working with leaders, the biggest obstacle that I see to a more collaborative decision-making process is a lack of time. It is much faster to make a decision and move on. However, the resulting lack of motivation and sometimes vehement objections from people expected to implement a plan on which they had no influence will take a lot of a leader’s time. A simple conversation and a few questions can go a long way toward saving time in the long run.

Here are the bullet points to remember:

  • People like control. Great leaders give others control as much as possible. Autonomy is motivating.
  • Meeting people’s personal needs to be listened to, understood, and respected creates positive relationships.
  • We make better decisions with more information. People who don’t agree with us can have valuable information to share.
  • After making a decision, a leader should share the reasons behind the decision and their feelings about it.
  • Inclusive decision-making saves more time in the long run.

Everything on my leadership list fosters psychological safety. When we listen and value the feelings and opinions of others, we are creating the safe space needed for psychological safety.


For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at PositiveEffectLeadership.com.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.

Psychological Safety: Final Answer (2)

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I am expounding on my list of things that a leader can do to create an atmosphere that will foster exceptional teams, as defined by Google’s Project Aristotle. You can read more about the study and see Google’s list of exceptional team attributes here

In that same blog, I listed my guidelines for leaders to focus on in order to create those characteristics. Here it is:

Kathy’s Leadership List

  1. Be present, and show that you care.
  •   Focus on keeping your mind present during conversations and meetings.
  •   Use good nonverbal communication to assure people that you are listening.
  •   Show interest in people’s activities outside of work.
  •   Maintain appropriate boundaries for personal discussions.
  1. Enforce and model respect for self and others.
  2. Include others in decision-making as much as possible.
  3. Ensure individual and team goals are clear and in alignment with organizational goals.
  4. Be consistent, dependable, and positive in your actions, attitude, and mindset.
  5. Make curiosity your default.

In that same blog, I talked at length about number one on this list. Let’s move on to number two:

Enforce and model respect for self and others. Great leadership is about creating and maintaining positive relationships because they are the foundation for exceptional teams, organizations, friendships, and romance. We cannot create a positive relationship without mutual respect.

In the workplace, we often fail to respect one another. I see it most often done with sarcasm. A team member makes a suggestion, and someone rolls his or her eyes. Another person might use a sarcastic tone and ask, “How do you think we are going to manage that?” I have to admit that a lack of respect is one of my pet peeves in life.

Leaders must not indulge in sarcasm or any other behavior that makes a person feel ridiculed or stupid. No exceptional team can exist if the leader is damaging relationships rather than building them. It is possible to disagree and ask questions in a respectful way. If that feels impossible to you, please call me. We can set up some training and coaching for your organization. Disagreement about an idea does not have to include disapproval of the person proposing it.

Leaders can and should control their own behavior, but we are also responsible for creating a positive and nurturing environment for ideas and creativity. How do we get everyone else to play nice and be respectful? The answer is to create a Designed Alliance. I have written about Designed Alliances here and here

In daily life and with a group using a Designed Alliance, it’s important to define what respect looks like. Respect covers a lot of ground. We are respectful when we:

  •   Show up on time.
  •   Listen without interrupting.
  •   Thank someone for giving us feedback.
  •   Ask questions about an idea or concept without calling a person’s intelligence or     motivation into question.
  •   Use nonverbals to clearly demonstrate our interest in what a person is saying.
  •   Use self-discipline to manage feelings of frustration and anger.

A caveat of showing respect to others is that it helps us get to the outcome that we are looking for. A conversation or negotiation will end harshly more than 90% of the time if it begins harshly, according to John Gottman’s research. If we are respectful, then we are not harsh.

Time and time again, I have witnessed people losing their temper and lashing out at others when a discussion stalls and one or both people don’t feel that they are being understood. When we disrespect one another, the conversation or negotiation is usually over. However, if we can hang in there, stay calm, and ask questions, we can usually manage the situation and get our desired outcome. Some of my clients have gotten amazing results by changing the way that they argue with others. We talk about tools and perspectives, but the bottom line is that they remain respectful of others.

Here are my bullets for number two on my list:

Enforce and model respect for self and others.

  •   Watch vigilantly for situations that make a person or group feel a lack of respect.
  •   Talk to employees and peers about disrespectful behavior in an appropriate setting.
  •   Behave scrupulously, in a way that always shows respect for others.
  •   Establish Designed Alliances whenever possible so that respectful behavior is explicitly defined, expected, and required.

Showing and enforcing respect requires the two things that leadership coaching provides: increased awareness about what is going on and intentional action. Intentional action requires some self-discipline. Fortunately, self-discipline is a muscle that we can strengthen with practice. A leadership coach can help you identify behaviors that will create success and also help you practice and stick with those behaviors.


For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at PositiveEffectLeadership.com.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.

Psychological Safety: Final Answer (1)

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I want to circle back to the study that started my exploration of psychological safety. Back in 2012, Google realized that not all its teams were performing equally – which is a bit odd if you think about it. Google is full of smart and motivated people. Why wouldn’t all their teams be doing great? They created an initiative called Project Aristotle and set out to study their teams.

The research team looked at the characteristics of the people on each team. They researched the effects of age, ethnicity, background, education, and interests. They compared groups that socialized outside of work to groups that didn’t. The researchers looked at 180 teams and couldn’t find any rhyme or reason to why one team did better than another – for a while.

The team followed a trail that started with something about group norms, to unwritten rules, to team culture. They knew that norms mattered, but which one was most influential? They found that psychological safety was the key.

We feel psychologically safe when we are sure that our teammates won’t embarrass or punish us (or anyone else) for asking a question, making a mistake, or suggesting a new idea. We are free to take risks.

I’ve focused mainly on psychological safety, but here is the complete list of influencing factors in order of importance:

  1. Psychological Safety. The team members feel safe to take risks and be vulnerable in front of each other.
  2. Dependability. Team members get things done on time and meet standards for excellence.
  3. Structure and Clarity. Team members have clear roles, plans, and goals.
  4. Meaning. Work is personally important to team members.
  5. Impact. Team members think their work matters and creates change.

I’m always trying to come up with clear, short guidelines for leaders to follow. It’s sort of a game for me, a puzzle. In a previous blog , I wrote a list of things that leaders can do to create psychological safety. Here a list that takes all of Project Aristotle’s findings into consideration.

Kathy’s Leadership List

  1. Be present, and show that you care.
  2. Enforce and model respect for self and others.
  3. Include others in decision-making as much as possible.
  4. Ensure individual and team goals are clear and in alignment with organizational goals.
  5. Be consistent, dependable, and positive in your actions, attitude, and mindset.
  6. Make curiosity your default.

We are going to explore my list one item at a time. I was going to include them all in one blog and quickly realized that I would be creating a monster blog for me to write and you to read. Let’s take it slowly. This week, we examine the first item on my list.

Be present, and show that you care. In every leadership workshop that I facilitate, someone complains of a boss who continues working on the computer while talking with people. When we aren’t fully present during our conversations, we are telling people that they are less important than whatever we are doing. It’s crucial for leaders to stop what they are doing and give others their full attention. If you don’t have time at that moment, turn and ask if you can talk when you’ve finished what you need to do. Then be sure to follow through and have that conversation.

We let people know that we are truly listening and paying attention with our nonverbal communication – facial expression, tone of voice, and body language. Face the person you are talking with, and make good eye contact. We show we are listening by reacting to what a person says; our facial expression should mirror theirs. Lastly, turn your shoulders and hips toward whoever is speaking, and do not cross your arms. There are books on nonverbal communication that are great, but these are the basics.

Leaders in my workshops struggle with finding a balance around caring for employees. It can be a challenge. First, we must always have others’ best interests at heart. As leaders, we can’t put individual needs over organizational requirements, but one of our goals is to create success for the people who work for us. We want them to succeed, and we want to help.

We also want them to know that we see them as fellow human beings and value the relationship. Know that a few minutes spent chatting is not a waste of time. People value time spent conversing with a leader. It’s time well-spent in creating a positive relationship.

However, boundaries are crucial. We want to show interest in people’s lives outside of work, but we don’t want to hear inappropriate details. It’s perfectly acceptable to say, “I am not comfortable talking about that at work.” It’s a good answer when someone asks a question that you feel is too private.

Here is item one of my list, with bullet point reminders:

  1. Be present, and show that you care.
  • Focus on keeping your mind present during conversations and meetings.
  • Use good nonverbal communication to assure people that you are listening.
  • Show interest in people’s activities outside of work.
  • Maintain appropriate boundaries for personal discussions.

Remember, people don’t quit their jobs; they quit their bosses. We do not want to be a boss that people want to escape. We create the positive relationships required for a good working environment when we are present and show that we care.


For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at PositiveEffectLeadership.com.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.

Psychological Safety: Power of a Designed Alliance

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In a recent leadership workshop, I asked small groups to come up with suggestions for how to create psychological safety. Every group came up with one common answer that has inspired me to modify my list for leaders on how to create psychological safety. They all said that a leader should work with the group to establish guidelines or ground rules. It’s something I do at the beginning of each leadership series and an activity I have teams perform when I work with organizations.

People work together in groups better when they establish a clear set of behavior guidelines. In systems coaching, we call the guidelines a Designed Alliance. It’s an agreement between all group members about how they want to interact and solve problems. A Designed Alliance can help a group consciously create the culture that they want. In our case, we want to establish group norms that encourage behavior that would encourage psychological safety.

Ground rules created by the leader of the group that are then handed down as mandates are not that effective. The group has not explicitly agreed to abide by the rules. Also, it is then the leader’s responsibility to enforce the rules. The group has little buy-in around rules that they didn’t have a part in creating.

It’s more effective for the group to design an alliance together. The group establishes clear guidelines for acceptable behavior and agrees to follow them. The group members also agree to enforce the rules of the Designed Alliance. It’s especially important for the group to determine how it wants to deal with conflict.

Next time that I work with a team, I am going to explain Project Aristotle and the importance of psychological safety. Then, I’m going to ask them to come up with behaviors and guidelines that would help to create psychological safety for the group. Those actions will be our Designed Alliance.

If you want some suggestions for behaviors that create psychological safety, look back at the blogs that I’ve written on this topic. We’ve discussed and dissected psychological safety for 16 weeks. We’ve talked about things like trust, vulnerability, and Positive and Negative Sentiment Override. In general, any behavior that builds trust and makes us feel safe will encourage psychological safety.

A Designed Alliance is a powerful tool in creating group norms and behaviors that will support psychological safety. Thanks to my fabulous workshop participants for reminding me!


For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 (Two-Minute) Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at PositiveEffectLeadership.com.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.

Psychological Safety: How to Create It

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We’ve examined many aspects of psychological safety and its importance. Now let’s get to the crux of the issue: How does a leader create psychological safety?

Google published a list of things that a leader can do to foster psychological safety. You can find it here. Scroll to the bottom of the page, and you can download a full-page list. There are five categories with bullet points under each. Here are the categories:

  • Demonstrate engagement
  • Show understanding
  • Be inclusive in interpersonal settings
  • Be inclusive in decision-making
  • Show confidence and conviction without appearing inflexible

There is also a YouTube video of Amy Edmondson discussing her findings about psychological safety at the link above. Here is the link to the video on YouTube if you want to go right to it. She explains psychological safety clearly with some great examples. I’d read some of her work but hadn’t seen the video before now.

Edmondson says that we have a great strategy for self-protection that robs a group of psychological safety. Psychologists call it impression management. We don’t want to look ignorant, incompetent, intrusive, or negative so we don’t ask questions, don’t admit mistakes, don’t offer ideas, and don’t criticize the status quo. This list created a light bulb for me. I see these behaviors all the time in the people and groups that I work with. Edmondson says that we’ve mastered this strategy by elementary school.

Her suggestions for creating psychological safety are:

  1. Frame the work as a learning problem, not an execution problem.
  2. Acknowledge our own fallibility.
  3. Model curiosity and ask a lot of questions.

I think she summed it up best when she said that we want to create an environment where we are not afraid of each other. Wow. That comment hit me. We do walk around most of the time fearing the reactions of others. What a waste of time and energy. Honestly, disapproval and humiliation are not fatal.

Before I discovered Edmondson’s list of ways to create psychological safety, I came up with my own. Here are my suggestions:

  1. Use verbal and nonverbal communication to show that you are present and that you care. No one cares what you know until they know that you care. It sounds like a platitude, but I find it to be very true. One of the ways to show that we care is to listen attentively.
  2. Enforce and model respect for self and others. I was a Boy Scout leader for many years and strictly enforced one rule: Nice words or no words. It was amazing to see how each boy flourished when he didn’t have to worry about being embarrassed or ridiculed. Being respectful also means being on time and doing what you say you are going to do.
  3. Be inclusive. Being inclusive means including others in the decision-making process and sharing the rationale for decisions. We want to ask for feedback and keep everyone in the loop as much as possible.
  4. Stay focused. Great leaders will keep a discussion and a process on track and moving forward. It’s detrimental to allow a group to meander around without a purpose or goal. Effective leaders must run meetings, processes, and projects with an eye to the ultimate goal and be sure the team knows what those goals and standards are. Individuals are most effective when they feel that what they do has an impact; a leader must make the connection between organizational success and the actions that the team complete.
  5. Be positive. Being positive covers a lot of territory, but it does not mean that the leader needs to maintain a constantly cheerful attitude. It means looking at people and events in a positive light as much as possible. Being positive includes actively looking for the good things that people are doing and commenting on them. It means looking at failure as a learning experience instead of the end of the world. A leader also is being positive when he or she expresses gratitude for a job well done.

I like my list and think it’s doable. From now on, I think I will grab “model curiosity” off Edmondson’s list and add it to mine. When I talk about Gottman’s list of communication toxins (aka the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse) in workshops, the antidote for all of them is curiosity.

Creating an optimal team environment requires a lot of the leader of the team. Usually a leader needs some help in self-assessment and behavior change. It’s important to note that behavior change is difficult if one tries to do it alone. Most people find change easier and faster if they have someone to help. I’ve seen coaching help people make amazing transformations.

If you are interested in reaping the benefits of psychological safety in your personal and professional relationships, I’d love to go on that journey with you.


For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at PositiveEffectLeadership.com.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.

Psychological Safety: Vulnerability and Walking the Talk

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As we have delved into the aspects of psychological safety as defined by Google’s research findings from Project Aristotle, we have determined that trusting and being trustworthy are essential. We must be willing to be vulnerable by taking risks and stating our opinions. We must also support others when they do the same. When we all feel free to share and dare, we have created psychological safety.

And – vulnerability is scary and difficult. Even before I started writing about psychological safety, I’d been working on being vulnerable. I can tell you that it takes some bravery to reveal your thoughts and feelings to others.

I started by combatting my desire to be right. It came from a youth of having any error or misstep pounced upon and ridiculed. In order to avoid harassment, I urgently and determinedly avoided being wrong. Like Fonzie, I had a challenge in saying the phrase “I was wrong” and apologizing. I feel I’ve improved, and I continue to work on it.

I did not grow up in an “I love you” household but was determined to tell my own children that I love them. I do love them with all of my heart, and it’s still awkward for me sometimes. They are grown men now, and I still hug them every chance that I get. That never feels awkward! I consider that a great personal accomplishment, even though it may not sound like a big deal to most people. I’m working on expanding my circle of people with whom I am willing to be emotionally vulnerable.

I’ve also gotten better about asking for help. To be honest, I went into that one kicking and screaming. Brain surgery in 2009 and a divorce this year both left me a mess. I couldn’t have gotten through either one without some emotional support and physical help. I don’t like asking for help, but I’m getting a lot of practice. Fortunately, I’m surrounded by wonderful people who answer the call and make it a positive experience. In fact, they have created psychological safety for me.

And the learning continues. I’m blogging about vulnerability and getting frustrated with others’ lack of bravery. Then I go to exercise class. I walk in, and the back row is completely full. No one wants to be in front of anyone else. The rest of the room is empty, but the back row is shoulder-to-shoulder. I walk to the side and start to set up in a small, inconspicuous space.

Ding, ding, ding! Hello, Kathy! I realize the cowardice of crouching on the side. I heave a sigh and move my mat to the center of the room. Walking the talk. Showing courage. Dang! I am not limber and not terribly graceful, but I am standing in the middle of the room – being awkward and vulnerable. It’s a super inconsequential setting. No one cares if I am terrible! However, it’s still difficult and great practice for being vulnerable and showing bravery.

My mom did become more warm and fuzzy later in life. As an adult, she truly made me uncomfortable when she told me that she loved me and gave me a hug. Looking back, I see that she made the intentional choice to be emotionally vulnerable. I wish that I had caught on and joined her enthusiastically before she passed away in 2001. I didn’t, so the only thing I can do now is take up her banner.

Regret is way worse than that uncomfortable feeling of being vulnerable. That’s an important point to remember. If we aren’t vulnerable, we miss all kinds of opportunities to build relationships and success. Take a deep breath, and join me front and center. It’s really not so bad.


For a little bit of fun leadership development, join 53 Leadership Challenges at KathyStoddardTorrey.com.

Want to go further with your professional development? Check out the courses offered at PositiveEffectLeadership.com.

If you are interested in taking your career to the next level quickly, contact me for a sample coaching session at KSTorrey@tapferconsulting.com.