Career Diaries Part 3: Conversations to Drive Change

This blog is part of a series. Also read Career Diaries Part 1 and Part 2.

After one rock bottom day when I had what seemed like a triple epic fail—personally, professionally and academically—I realized I needed to change by looking at the world and doing things differently. I started by taking to heart some advice I found in the book Presence.

Instead of fighting the currents, I tried to be more present, accepting and orientated toward change. Here’s what happened.

The Power of Positive Thinking…and Breathing!

I decided to focus first on changing my mindset at work because this was the easiest thing to do. I set a goal to be more present, positive and change-oriented.

It wasn’t about being right or wrong, good or bad. It was about how I could understand what was happening and then work to change the situation if needed.

I did this through deep breathing and “talking” to myself like I would to a friend with positive and reassuring comments.

Work meeting went awry and the boss is mad: “Breathe. I understand that she is upset because she cares so much about the work. You got this. What do you need to do differently?”

Team member didn’t do what you needed them to do and the project was delayed: “I understand how that could have happened. She is trying to do the best job possible. Breathe. How could you help her?”

I know, this sounds kinda cheesy, and I admit it didn’t always work. But when it did, it was so worth it! The boss’ cutting looks didn’t get to me, and I was able to charge ahead on projects. My team member seemed relieved and motivated to do more when I offered to help. And my stress levels went down, allowing me to be happier at work and at home.

Open, Honest Questions to Foster Change

After I somewhat mastered the internal dialogue, I went external. I set a goal to be present with my team members and do more listening than talking. I started by putting my phone away or shutting down my email whenever I was meeting with my team members. No distractions meant my full attention, completely present.

I also started to be more proactive about integrating deliberate change-oriented conversations. I acknowledged and normalized work challenges by getting them out in the open and working through them together, candidly.

I’d ask questions like “What’s the hardest part of your job right now?” followed by “That does seem hard. What do you think we need to do to change that?” This was hard at first because I basically had to acknowledge that I did not have the answer and then shut up and listen. Trust me, it’s not as easy as it sounds when you’re leading people!

I would also ask questions like “When did you feel really good about your work since the last time we met?” followed by, “That’s amazing! Could you share that with everyone at our next staff meeting?” I also started to celebrate accomplishments big and small with things like a lunchtime pedicure or long coffee breaks. This not only helped my team feel appreciated and committed to our work, but also it made work more fun. And who doesn’t like to have fun at work?

How Changing the Conversation Changed the Game

It took about a year or so, but this approach had transformative effects for my team. An accepting and change-oriented approach seemed to become the norm. We supported and celebrated one another and worked through issues quickly. Our productivity went through the roof! I saw one team member take this approach with her clients and another team members even took this approach to help her through the trials of being a new mom. It was amazing and fulfilling to watch.

I, too, felt transformed. I think I became a better and more respected manager, which helped my job satisfaction. I also became a better mom and student because I was less stressed and more emotionally present, more ready to take on the challenges of a 7 year-old and my dissertation. And anyone who has experienced either knows how emotionally challenging they can be!

Perhaps my greatest transformation was that I learned the beauty of letting go of rigid expectations and the joys of just seeing what could happen. When I was more present, empathetic and attentive, I appreciated the incredibly smart and talented people right in front of me in new ways.

Most importantly, I appreciated myself in a new way, accepting who I had become and how I was changing every day.

Marcella Gonsalves is wife, mom, program planner, writer, teacher, coach and people developer.  When she is not helping people or organizations achieve their goals, she loves to drink a good espresso, talk about nutrition, or even take a kickboxing class or two. She has a diverse educational background with a bachelor of arts in journalism, master of public health and is nearly finished with a doctorate in educational leadership and management. Check out her LinkedIn profile for more details.

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