Understanding human communication patterns makes you a better leader

Do you have a colleague that irritates you with his “ahs,” “ums” or protracted silences?

Leaders are taught that strong orators remove superfluous words and awkward silences from their presentations, so it makes sense that you might take a dim view of these speech patterns. But even though Sam from accounting might drive you to distraction with his verbal tics, these words (or lack thereof) actually serve a purpose in conversation. Here’s how to crack the code on this uniquely human communication pattern so you can better connect with your colleagues.

Verbal fillers as traffic signals

Linguistics professor N.J. Enfield at the University of Sydney in Australia has studied the role that words such as “ah” and “um” play in conversation. It turns out that these words act as “traffic signals” in human communication, signaling to others in the conversation when to chime in and when to hold up. (Although animals communicate with one another, they don’t consider how their communication methods affect other animals, which makes this “traffic directing” uniquely human.)

In this Atlantic article, Enfield describes these words as cues that tell the listener, “I’m still forming my thought ... give me another moment.”  The leadership takeaway? When talking with someone, learn to view these verbal fillers as a request for a few more seconds of airtime for the speaker, rather than losing patience or seeing the person as less credible.

Is your conversation a competition?

Leaders may also perceive the space created by verbal fillers as an opportunity to form one’s response. This frames conversation as a competition, where listening carefully is the means for finding flaws in logic or formulating a rebuttal, say leadership consultants Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.  

“That might make you an excellent debater, but it doesn’t make you a good listener,” write Zenger and Folkman in this Harvard Business Review article. “Good listeners may challenge assumptions and disagree, but the person being listened to feels the listener is trying to help, not wanting to win an argument.”  

To boost your listening skills, think of your conversations with people in a cooperative, “give and take” light, allowing for your team members to “gain energy and height [within the flow of conversation], just like someone jumping on a trampoline,” write Zenger and Folkman.

Using silence to build connection

The phrase “silence is golden” rings true for leaders trying to encourage meaningful conversation. But, as linguist Enfield points out, leaders face an uphill battle because in one-to-one conversation, “a full second is about the limit of our tolerance for silence.” So do use silence to build a connection with others, but do so with the proper intent.

Leadership coach and author Peter Bregman writes, “If you treat this silence thing as a game, or as a way to manipulate the views of others, it will backfire. Inevitably you will be discovered, and your betrayal will be felt more deeply. If people are lured into connection, only to feel manipulated, they may never trust you again.”

Leadership tip: Discern the reason for the silence. If it’s because the speaker needs more time to formulate a thought, but you’re tempted to jump in to “help” them with their words, silently count to 10 in your head before replying.

Far from being annoying habits to be squashed, some verbal habits actually serve a purpose. Astute leaders will pay attention to the communication cues they’re being offered and respond accordingly. Doing so will garner you a reputation for communication excellence.


Jennifer V. Miller is a freelance writer and leadership development consultant. She helps business professionals lead themselves and others towards greater career success. Join her Facebook community The People Equation and sign up for her free tip sheet: “Why is it So Hard to Shut Up? 18 Ways to THINK before you Speak.”

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9 New Year’s work resolutions to start now

Before you drag out that dusty old treadmill, how about some resolutions that you can live with, ones that will DRAMATICALLY improve your life over the next 12 months? Here are some New Year’s resolutions for work that you might consider implementing:

  1. Schedule 20 minutes of solitude every day. And if that feels too aggressive, then start with 10 minutes. Put it on your calendar and abide by it. Use the time to sit quietly at your desk if circumstances permit; otherwise, find a quiet conference room or park bench. Do nothing during this time but breathe deeply and observe your thoughts as they drift by.
  2. Take the stairs. At first you may arrive at meetings out of breath, but before you know it, you’ll be gliding up and down and your calves will be more toned calves and your cardiovascular health will thank you for it.
  3. Bring your lunch, at least sometimes. Studies have shown that the lunch you make at home will generally be healthier and more satisfying than what you grab at that place on the corner. Eat it slowly, preferably away from your desk. Find a friend to chat with, or use that time to reconnect with yourself and prepare for the afternoon ahead.
  4. Be kind. Let someone else present their idea first. Offer a compliment. Be gracious and generous. Or fake it – no one will know the difference at first, and soon, it’ll be on purpose. Be kind to yourself, as well – forgive yourself for little mistakes you’ve made and speak to yourself the way you would to a good friend.
  5. Take a seat at the table. (Women, especially, but guys, too.) Step up and be part of the discussion. If you see someone else sitting off to the side, encourage them to join you at the main event. You wouldn’t be there if you didn’t have something to contribute. Be thoughtful in your approach, but do occupy the space and add something of value to the dialogue.
  6. Be an advocate. Speak up on behalf of someone who is over-delivering — on your team or elsewhere. Send a quick email to their boss, briefly describing what they contribute and how much you appreciate it. There is no downside to doing this, if it is sincere. You’ll build allies — managers will appreciate hearing from you and knowing that others are noticing the success of their team.
  7. Be your OWN advocate. Fight for the project that you want to own. Ask for the raise that you feel you have earned. No one will ever advocate as strongly on your behalf as you can. Be armed with the facts, be calm and professional, and then give it all you’ve got. If you get a “no” — take a minute to lick your wounds and then consider what to do differently the next time.
  8. Stop apologizing. Unless you stepped on someone’s foot, sorry should never be the first word out of your mouth. If you have a question, ask it. If you have an opinion, voice it. You do not need to apologize for your presence or your point of view.
  9. Say something positive. Avoid the office gossip mill. Yes, it’s fun in the moment, but research has proven over time that indulging in catty chatter makes things worse, not better. Try to be the person who takes the high road and step away from the mud getting slung.

2018 is your opportunity to become a better version of your professional self. It won’t happen overnight. Studies have shown that adopting a new habit takes at least 30 days, and sometimes even longer. Cut yourself some slack and try again tomorrow. Focus on the effort, not the result, and know that every step you take gets you one step closer to being the professional you were meant to become.

Laura Small is VP / Associate Human Resources Director at advertising agency RPA.


Get to the heart of workplace conflict by reading body language

I remember when toxicity from two gossiping co-workers took a toll at my workplace. The team members' personalities did not groove well, and they weren't shy to let it show. Workplace productivity was disrupted from the constant gossip, and it was clear that things needed to change.

No person or company is immune to workplace conflict. In fact, 65% of employees believe respectful treatment of all employees plays a vital role in their job satisfaction. It's no question that workplace conflict can be a culprit of workplace disrespect and tension, thus leading to performance and productivity issues.

Some signs of conflict are visible, such as a heated argument between team members. Other conflicts are not so easy to spot and are disguised by body language. I’ve spent years in entrepreneurial roles learning that inconsistencies between verbal statements and nonverbal actions are strong indicators of conflict and how to manage these situations through recognizing and using body language.

Before conflict undermines the livelihood of your workplace culture, you, too, can utilize the subtle clues of body language to detect it as early as possible.

Learning the language

Sometimes, we place too much emphasis on choosing our words and forget to focus on how they are conveyed. As much as 55% of what we say is communicated through body language and facial expressions, UCLA professor Albert Mehrabian asserts in his book "Silent Messages.”

You’re probably familiar with some body language cues. Clenched fists and pointing fingers are both clear signs. But other actions, including lowered eyebrows, tightness around the mouth and eyes, and shallow breathing, are less obvious. As a manager, though, these signs are crucial to notice when identifying and resolving conflict.

Interpreting the signs

By reading body language, I resolved a productivity conflict with a team member before it turned into a bigger issue. I could tell from the way this team member walked and his facial expressions that something was wrong. It was also clear through performance metrics that his sales work was down.

When we met to discuss why he was struggling, the first thing I noticed was his smile. A genuine smile pushes up your cheeks and creates wrinkles around the eyes. Instead, he exhibited a fake smile, in which the muscles around the mouth do the work, creating a sometimes awkward-looking grin. This could be a sign that he was uncomfortable talking about the situation.

The second sign I noticed was lingering eye contact. Contrary to popular belief, longer periods of eye contact are not always a good thing. In fact, a 2016 study from The Royal Society found that, on average, we are only comfortable making eye contact for 3.3 seconds at a time.

After listening to the team member's story, I cut to the chase. I calmly told him what I had observed in his body language and that I really wanted to hear the truth. That’s when our real conversation started. The employee told me he had issues with his manager. This made him resentful and affected his productivity.

The resolution occurred after a few additional meetings with the employee, the manager, and me — all while using body language to my advantage.

Making the most out of body language

When aiming to defuse conflict, begin by focusing your attention on your team member, nodding your head gently to convey you understand.

In addition, make sure the muscles around your forehead and eyes are smooth and relaxed. This nonverbal sign assures others that there is nothing to worry about. To help with this, go in front of a mirror, make an angry face and notice the tense muscles around your eyebrows and lips. The better you recognize facial tension, the more likely you will be able to relax and create positive body language.

Likewise, breathe slowly, and avoid crossing your arms. Breathing fast is a sign of stress, and your stress can greatly affect those who report to you. In addition, I see junior team members cross their arms a lot in situations, and I take it as my cue to step in and get to the root of the frustration.

Avoid negative signs, such as pointing feet away from you or toward an exit, looking away or to the side, or leaning away from you. These movements indicate a person's disinterest in the conversation or meeting. As a manager, be aware of this body language and make an effort to reel in the attention. One way is to use humor. Say something like "OK, maybe I'm not the best speaker, so please tell me what I can do better to get you interested."

Armed with this knowledge, you can use soothing body language and discussion to resolve conflict and spot future issues down the road.


Originally from Turkey, Zeynep Ilgaz and her husband emigrated to the US with two suitcases, their love for each other and a desire for entrepreneurship. They co-founded Confirm BioSciences and TestCountry in San Diego, and Ilgaz serves as president of both. Confirm BioSciences offers service-oriented testing technologies for drugs of abuse and health.

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Managing dominance in teams

If you want to get something done, put a powerful person on your team. If you want to ruin the team, in order to get more done, put one or two more powerful people on the team. Productivity will decrease.

This is the conclusion of a recent study by two academics -- Angus Hildreth and Cameron Anderson -- at the University of California, Berkeley, Haas School of Business and reported by Shankar Vedantam on NPR’s "Morning Edition."

Psychologists refer to this trait as dominance.

The supervisor must make it very clear that success will require total team effort. Each individual is responsible for results. Failure to achieve is a failure of team as well as a failure of individuals who will be held accountable.

Dominance is vital to leadership but, as with all power, it must be used appropriately in order to benefit others and not simply the individual.

Note: For more information on the research cited in this post, read "Failure at the Top: How Power Undermines Collaborative Performance," by Hildreth and Anderson.

John Baldoni is an internationally recognized leadership educator and executive coach. In 2017, Trust Across America named him a Top Thought Leader in Trust for the fourth consecutive year. Global Gurus ranked Baldoni No. 22 on its list of top 30 global experts, a list he has been on since 2007. In 2014, Inc.com named him to its list of top 50 leadership experts. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including his newest, “MOXIE: The Secret to Bold and Gutsy Leadership.”

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Meeting leadership: 5 tips from neuroscience

Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today's post is by Dick and Emily Axelrod.

Neuroscience provides insights into leader behaviors that create effective meetings. Here are five tips that will make your next meeting an engaging and productive experience.

1. Make it safe for people to speak their mind. When presenting an idea to your team, ask meeting participants why your idea won’t work. When they respond, instead of trying to convince people that your idea will work, listen in order to understand their viewpoint. Follow up with statements like, “Please tell me more.” If they don’t respond, try saying, “If I were sitting in your chair, I might be thinking that this was the craziest idea I ever heard. I’m really interested in your comments.”

Then, incorporate their ideas for improvement into your proposal. When you invite criticism and listen for understanding, you begin to build trust that, in turn, creates a psychologically safe environment. Neuroscience has found that people are more productive when they experience psychological safety.

2. Involve meeting participants in meeting design. People support what they help to create. Meeting ownership shifts when participants are involved in determining the who, what, when, where and why of their meeting. Participants who participate in the meeting’s design work to ensure the meeting’s success. This tip involves going beyond asking participants for suggestions for the meeting agenda. It means involving meeting participants in designing the complete meeting experience -- from how people are welcomed to how you sum things up at the end.

3.Provide autonomy. Experiencing that your voice counts is different than feeling as if your voice counts. Create opportunities for participants to influence the meeting's direction and participate in decisions that are made there. As a leader, it is important to clarify the decision rules prior to entering a discussion. Meeting participants need to know if they are being asked to provide feedback on a proposal or if they are being asked to decide on whether to implement a proposal. Paradoxically, clear decision rules provide autonomy because people know what is being asked of them and can respond accordingly.

4. Make sure your meeting has meaning. This means discussing questions such as:

  • "What do you want to be different for you, for your co-workers and the organization as a result of this meeting?"
  • "What do you want to create for yourself, your co-workers and the organization because this group meets?"
  • "Why are you willing to put your own time and energy into this meeting?"

Energy is created when people find meaning in their work.

5. Provide opportunities to learn and grow. Frame your meetings as learning opportunities:

  • We are here to learn about how to improve our budgeting process.
  • We are here to learn how to successfully implement projects within the organization.
  • We are here to learn how to successfully implement this year’s goals.

Learning stimulates the brain and makes for engaging meetings.

Incorporate these tips in your next meeting and notice that changes in yourself and your fellow meeting participants


Dick and Emily Axelrod have a combined 60+ years in working with businesses and nonprofits. They are pioneers in creating employee involvement programs to effect large-scale organization change, and co-founded the Axelrod Group in 1981. Together, Emily and Dick are frequent keynote speakers, and co-authors. Their latest book is "Let’s Stop Meeting Like This: Tools to Save Time and Get More Done" (2014).

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What’s your biggest concern going into the new year?

SmartPulse -- our weekly nonscientific reader poll in SmartBrief on Leadership -- tracks feedback from more than 220,000 business leaders. We run the poll question each week in our newsletter.

What's your biggest concern going into the new year?

  • Market forces affecting our business: 29.2%
  • Internal leadership challenges we face: 40.3%
  • Competitive dynamics: 11.9%
  • Social issues impacting our work: 11.1%
  • I don't have any big concerns: 7.4%

We’re our own biggest problem. While market and competitive dynamics also present big concerns, it’s surprising that there are as many internal concerns as polled. For those who face internal issues, what are you doing right now to resolve those issues? Training? Development? Providing feedback? Reorganizing? For those concerned about the external challenges, are you putting contingency plans in place and assessing possible future outcomes? While it’s fine to be concerned about any of these issues, a leader’s job is to plan for the future and to work toward resolution. Let that be your New Year’s resolution.

Mike Figliuolo is managing director of thoughtLEADERS. Before launching his own company, he worked at McKinsey & Co., Capital One and Scotts Miracle-Gro. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He's the author of three leadership books: "One Piece of Paper," "Lead Inside the Box" and "The Elegant Pitch."

Leadership lessons from the pool

Each month, When Growth Stalls examines why businesses and brands struggle and how they can overcome their obstacles and resume growth. Steve McKee is the president of McKee Wallwork + Co., an advertising agency that specializes in working with stalled, stuck and stale brands. The company was recognized by Advertising Age as 2015 Southwest Small Agency of the Year. McKee is also the author of “When Growth Stalls” and “Power Branding.”

SmartBrief offers more than 200 newsletters, including SmartBrief on Leadership and newsletters for small businesses and marketers and advertisers.

Swimmers are odd ducks. Day after day we haul ourselves out of warm beds and plunge into cold pools, where we kick and pull, back and forth, lap after lap, until we’ve convinced ourselves we’ve accomplished something. To dry-landers, the whole enterprise appears nonsensical. It’s hard to argue with that when you’re face-down in the water.

That said, in addition to its myriad physiological benefits, swimming provides significant psychological succor. The pool is one of the few remaining domains unsullied by phone calls, emails, texts and posts (for now). When you swim you have nothing to do but think, which these days is a rare indulgence.

There’s nothing like allowing your mind to soak on a subject as you eat up the yards. I’ve come up with some of my finest ideas watching the thick black line on the bottom go by. I’ve also had time to meditate on more general matters; call them leadership lessons from the pool. Here’s a baker’s dozen.

  1. "When the water’s cold, the best way to warm up is to get swimming." Starting something new can be just plain intimidating. Standing on deck staring at the surface isn’t going to get it done. Dive in.
  2. "Be careful when the water feels relaxing." If you choose, you can make a training pool feel like a hot tub. Don’t get too comfortable -- you’ll be sweating soon.
  3. "There will always be resistance. Getting through it gracefully is the point." Want to make progress with increasing efficiency? Learn how to reduce resistance.
  4. "You can add speed to form, but not versa." Tempo is temporary. Form is forever. 
  5. "Flailing is the first step in drowning." Activity does not equal results, and it can be utterly exhausting. Sometimes the key to survival is to do less.
  6. "It’s OK to go through the motions occasionally, as long as you maintain your discipline." Some days you’re just not feeling it. Resist the temptation to stay in bed and pull the covers over your head.
  7. "It doesn’t matter how deep the water gets if you swim on the top." Fear is unproductive. If you know what you’re doing, do it with confidence. And enjoy the view.
  8. "Treading water is a skill." Sometimes you have no way to move forward. Recognize that it’s temporary and conserve your energy.
  9. "The closer you are to the bottom, the more you’ll notice your progress." It’s simple physics: The narrower your field of vision, the easier it is to judge if you’re making headway.
  10. "Races are won and lost on the turns." No pursuit heads in the same direction forever. Knowing how and when to initiate a turn can mean the difference between worst and first.
  11. "Waves should be welcomed." Nobody wants to choke. The best way to avoid doing so is to learn how to breathe in rough water.
  12. "If the pace is too slow, you can always work on your stroke." We all swim in circles occasionally. When you can’t be as productive as you would like, look for other ways to improve.
  13. "You can curse the pain for revealing you’re weak, or bless it for making you strong." The struggle is never pleasant. The sense of accomplishment you get by overcoming it always is.

In swimming, as in life, the difference between those who learn to thrive and those who take a dive is whether they view the water as friend or foe. That which slows you down can also lift you up. The choice is yours.

Elevate your conversations in 2018

Observe the conversations in your workplace. Do you hear your colleagues and employees talking about what’s possible, or are they complaining about the past? Are conversations moving forward or spiraling down? Do people support each other or gossip? Here are eight practices to elevate your conversations in 2018.

1. Get present

Noise and distraction are everywhere. If you can maintain the discipline of really listening to what the other person is saying you will stand out. The other person senses your energy and magnetism even if they can’t put their finger on it.

What’s required? Stop looking at your smart device when you are engaged in conversation. When you truly aren’t available, just say so rather than pretending to listen. Most people appreciate discipline and honesty.

2. State your intention

Know your intention before an interaction to avoid getting distracted. For example, “My intention for this conversation is to make sure we are on the same page,” is a better direction than shooting from the hip and talking about all the things that aren’t working in the relationship.

What’s required? Setting intention requires you to let go of the seduction of blame.  Intention guides your thoughts and helps you focus on future outcomes versus past mistakes.

3. Stop playing verbal ping-pong

It’s easy to fall into a black hole about who is right, who is wrong, and what’s not fair. These communication habits indicate the tendency to get distracted. Stop taking the bait and you’ll elevate the conversation.

What’s required? Become aware of your triggers. Triggers often include the need to change or fix someone else, the need to be understood or the need to prove a point. Instead, work from your intention (tip No. 2) and then redirect the conversation.

4. Become curious

When someone rubs you the wrong way, it’s easy to engage in drama. For example, if you work with someone who is always sarcastic, you try to one-up them the next time. This kind of conversation spirals down. Instead of getting tangled up in game-playing, become curious.

What’s required? Don’t let anger take over. Take a breath and instead of reacting, respond thoughtfully with a focused question. “Why did you say that? Is there some hidden meaning?” Simply asking often causes the other person stop the pattern. Seek first to understand rather than to change.

5. Stop defending

Criticism makes you want to punch back. Instead, take a breath and take it on the chin. Don’t worry about being a doormat or allowing bullying behavior. There’s time to defend later if you find it necessary.

What’s required? Let the other person say what they have to say. Even if you feel misunderstood, pause and take several breaths before responding. Very often, when the other person feels understood, they become more balanced and more reasonable.  Once you have listened, then you can strategize about your next steps.

6. Address the elephant in the room

Your rain-making sales professional belittles other employees instead of mentoring them. Your spouse doesn’t do their fair share. In both cases a difficult conversation needs to take place but instead of initiating a conversation to seek change, you avoid the uncomfortable feelings.

What’s required? Feeling uncomfortable is a sign that there’s something that needs to be addressed. Don’t blame or accuse. Instead, highlight the observable behavior. “I observed that when Stacy needed help last week, you made a joke instead of teaching.” Then count to three to wait for a response. Remain curious and then ask for the behavior change you want.

7. Stop complaining

Make a commitment to stop complaining. You have to lead by example. Your next step as a leader is to help others shift their complaints into positive requests

What’s required? Ask yourself, “What is the opposite of the complaint?” This gives you a clue as to what is desired. Turn negative complaints into positive requests. Rather than saying “We always argue, and I’m tired of arguing,” say instead, “I want us to come to an agreement."

8.  Redirect the conversation

When the conversation goes south, it’s time to redirect and course-correct. Hint: Redirecting is the skill you need for practice (see "Stop complaining")

What’s required? Notice the urge to engage in nonproductive dialogue. Next, acknowledge the other person who wants to get you off track. For example, “No, it probably isn’t fair, but what we are talking about is…“  


When you elevate your conversations, you become a more effective leader, increase productivity and you get different results. If you find yourself getting pulled into ping pong, distractions and drama remember this: The one with clarity always navigates the ship.


Marlene Chism is a consultant, international speaker and the author of "Stop Workplace Drama" (Wiley 2011) and the author of "No-Drama Leadership (Bibliomotion 2015). Visit her website, and connect via LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter.

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Do you need others to lose for you to win?

As we wind down the year, I’d like us to think about our professional interactions and how we view them. Specifically, do we think most situations can only be resolved with one winner and the rest losers? Or are most situations ones where something good can result for everyone (or, at least, most)?

Some things are zero-sum or winner-take-all, at least in the moment: Only one person is usually hired to fill a vacancy. Only one person can be elected to the presidency. If you get married, you can’t legally repeat it somewhere else the next weekend without doing some paperwork first. If you die, you're dead.

But somehow in business, it's commonly thought that most situations have a clear winner -- and usually only one -- and that if you don't win, you lose. To that, I say, take a deep breath. You're probably not in a fight to the death.

The first problem with the idea of a zero-sum world is with the metaphors we use. War is a common business parallel. War can be zero sum, but we know that’s not always the case, or World War I would still be called The Great War and we would be saying “Korea” instead of South and North.

Sports, another common way to analogize business, is certainly zero sum on the level of team outcomes, but you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who thinks that LeBron James was an out-and-out loser last season, for instance, or that Eli Manning truly is the greater warrior because he is 2-0 in Super Bowls against Tom Brady. Sports is one of the great visceral forms of competition, but what makes a great rivalry is not one competitor's dominance, but the matchup of two great  -- and successful -- rivals. 

That team-versus-individual mindset is also important to keep in mind.

Yes, some deals are winner-take-all, and sometimes an industry or a product produces one or two winners and many losers (desktop-based browser search is Google’s; Boeing and Airbus rule their area of aircraft; the professional sports leagues do not worry about a direct competitor).

Even at the corporation level, the winner-take-all theory is often just not true. Vehicle manufacturing and sales isn't the only industry with multiple healthy companies or providers, and there is endless innovation, turnover and entrepreneurialism that threaten the idea of a sustainable competitive advantage. On a global scale, despite all the conflict and disagreement in the world, extreme poverty has been greatly reduced (albeit not without some debate)  -- and it’s clear that a poor country on another continent can improve itself without, say, income necessarily having to go down for Americans, in a literal sense.

Look at Nike, a company that was both fast-growing and on the brink of failure for most of its first 20 years. As Phil Knight relates in his memoir, there really were many life-or-death situations for the business. But was defeating everyone the ultimate goal? Was it getting rich? Knight says getting rich was never the goal, even if survival once was. But over time, that changed.

"I redefined winning, expanded it beyond my original definition of not losing, of merely staying alive. That was no longer enough to sustain me, or my company. We wanted, as all great businesses do, to create, to contribute, and we dared to say so aloud. When you make something, when you improve something, when you deliver something, when you add some new thing or service to the lives of strangers, making them happier, or healthier, or safer, or better, and when you do it all crisply and efficieniently, smartly, the way everything should be done but so seldom is -- you're participating more fully in the whole grand human drama. More than simply alive, you're helping others to live more fully, and if that's business, all right, call me a businessman."

On a smaller scale, a customer service representative is not trying to defeat the customer, even if there is a desired set of possible outcomes. Not every call will go that way, but perfection isn’t expected. Helping a co-worker get up to speed on a project doesn't necessarily mean you lose. Giving a generous parental-leave policy doesn't mean those people get free stuff others are scammed out of, or that the childless are automatically disadvantaged (even if there's occasionally an exception to this)

Corporate intrigue aside, how much of the day for most employees is truly winner take all? Are there not many occasions for negotiation, mutually beneficial outcomes and compromise? Are casual conversations bad of something isn't noticably gained? How about getting along with co-workers, even those whom you don't particularly like?

Furthermore, should employees and even managers substitute the company’s life goals for our own? As The Awl co-founder Choire Sicha once wrote, “Don’t spend a lot of time defending the place you work unless you’re accruing equity.”

Third, any great idea eventually needs backers, collaborators, early adopters, and all of those people must be able to give trust and have it received by the idea generator. The inventor does not hoard the idea, even if that person might get the biggest benefit.

Yes, it may be true that brainstorming should be done individually, but you still need to present that idea, get buy-in, win fans and secure resources, financial, technical and otherwise. As the comedian Bill Burr once caustically noted, Steve Jobs was the driver but not the sole architect of the iPhone.

“Did he sit down, like, ‘I’m going to invent the iPhone.’ He just sat there soldering, possibly welding, right? Didn't he have like a crew of guys helping him out?”

Elon Musk is undoubtedly not designing SpaceX’s rockets or writing code for Tesla’s software. Oprah’s book club was not solely books written by Oprah.

Whether you buy the importance of personalities within teams, or that people might not be as naturally selfish as once thought, there’s ample everyday anecdotal evidence that we live lives that are not about zero-sum outcomes. The preceding examples are of famous people, but there are mundane, even silly examples everywhere.

\When I cross the street because the light has turned red, I can be reasonably confident that driver isn’t thinking in a zero-sum manner along the lines of “I need to get where I’m going as fast as possible, everyone else be damned!” This is because we have a shared societal understanding of signs, of laws, of norms and customs. Beyond what I'm seeing in front of me, I'm also trusting in the driver, and in the state and the police to enforce this.

If these norms and laws are violated, it should be shocking; when such transgressions are not shocking, there are bigger problems. 

I’m making what may be an obvious point, but what I want to emphasize in the new year is to, in tense moments, take a moment to ask, “Is this a situation where I can only win if the others lose?” If not, maybe you can redirect your energy and worry toward building relationships and giving unto others while still achieving the success you need.


James daSilva is the longtime editor of SmartBrief's leadership newsletter and blog content, as well as newsletters for distributors, manufacturers and other professions. Before SmartBrief, he was a copy desk chief at a small daily New York newspaper. He's on vacation this week, but most of the time you can follow him @SBLeaders @James_daSilva or by email.

What SmartBrief’s top leadership posts of 2017 tell us

Every year, SmartBrief's Leadership blog publishes a few hundred posts, each with the goal of offering useful advice for being a better and more thoughtful leader, manager, communicator and strategist.

In doing so, we don't want to promise all the answers. There are no simple solutions to never-ending tasks like leadership, working with others and human interaction in general. Our writers are following the foundational belief of the SmartBrief on Leadership newasletter (please sign up!).-- you don't have to read us to stay current in your field, but we want you to want to read us to make yourself better and help others be better.

I've done this recap for several years now. For reference, here's last year's and 2015's.

What's new this year?

For the first time, Arte Nathan's 2011 post "7 ways to manage employees who are represented by a union" didn't make the top 10. It was still in the top 20, proving the power of his article and also, I suppose, the perpetual worry about unionization.

For the first time since 2014, Joel Garfinkle doesn't have the most popular post of the year, being succeed by LaRae Quy. In fact, Quy has the top three posts in terms of pageviews and four of the top 10.

As always, big pageview numbers are great, and reflect well on the author, but there are a lot of variables. Maybe I wrote a bad headline in the Leadership newsletter and so a great post didn't get the recognition it should have. Maybe the post was published right before a holiday weekend. This list is reflective of two key things: that the writers offered compelling prose and arguments that struck a nerve, and I didn't mess it up!

What do these posts mean?

In our year-end roundup at the SmartBrief on Leadership email, I noted that many of the most popular items there reflected tension, frustration or pessimism among that specific readership. I don't know that that is the case here.

Certainly, the popularity of resilience and leadership self-development among these posts can reflect a feeling of being under siege, but it can also simply be that our readership is looking to take charge of their lives and careers. That is great news -- and it's that type of never-ending task that SmartBrief on Leadership specializes in. We all need encouragement and ideas, and sometimes you just need to hear a concept told through a certain story for it to inspire you to action.

Specific to this most-read list, I encourage contributors to hone in on a topic. There are endless articles about "5 ways to..." that are mostly platitudes. Yes, of course, we should communicate more and show empathy and hold better meetings and eliminate distractions. But how? Why this way or that way? Resilience, for instnace, can be a buzzword if mentioned only briefly, but it acquires a deeper meaning when you spend 1,000 words unpacking it.

Another recent example of digging deep on a topic was last week's Lead Change post by Mary-Frances Winters on the difficulties with workplace conversations around diversity and inclusion.

Thank you

I'm eternally grateful to get to manage this blog and to have you as readers. I'm also owe an unpayable debt to my regular contributors and the countless guest bloggers (and the PR and publisher folks who work on their behalf). This includes Mike Figliuolo, who for many years has written our weekly reader poll and analysis. If we've helped anyone this year, it's largely because of his efforts and those of all our contributors.

Now, on to the most-read posts.

If you haven't read these yet, make sure to set aside some time. You won't be prescribed solutions, but you might be inspired, influenced or prompted toward discovering your own solution.

  1. "Mentally tough people refuse to think these things" -- LaRae Quy, June 21
  2. "Here's how resilient people approach life" -- LaRae Quy, May 27
  3. "A former FBI agent shares 8 qualities of resilient people" -- LaRae Quy, Feb. 15
  4. "Why you'll end up in the wrong job" -- Alaina Love, March 27
  5. "Spontaneous speaking: The 5-second strategy to improve delivery" -- Stephanie Scotti, April 21
  6. "10 hard skills to learn that will last a lifetime" -- LaRae Quy, March 15
  7. "Tips for boosting your leadership self-esteem" -- Naphtali Hoff, March 30
  8. "Give your people C.R.A.P. if you want great employee retention" -- Jeff Kortes, May 8
  9. "Are you a boss who plays favorites? Break those bad habits" -- Joel Garfinkle, June 19
  10. "Want a great culture? Mind your Ps and Ds" -- S. Chris Edmonds, Nov. 28
  11. "Leadership: It's what you make of it" -- Naphtali Hoff, July 12
  12. "Leaders who listen create space for great ideas to emerge" -- Jennifer V. Miller, June 13
  13. "How to practice mindful working" -- Alaina Love, Nov. 27
  14. "The 'Dirty Fish Tank' training model and the modern method for developing leaders" -- Craig Ross, Angie Paccione and Victoria Roberts, Aug. 29
  15. "7 signs you are growing" -- Marlene Chism, Sept. 11


James daSilva is a senior editor in charge of SmartBrief's leadership and management content, as well as newsletters for HR executives, wholesale-distributors and manufacturers. Before joining SmartBrief, he was copy desk chief at a daily newspaper in New York. You can find him on Twitter sharing leadership and management insights @SBLeaders.