Put It All on the Table: Establishing Priorities and Staying Productive in Uncertain Times

We live in an environment of constant change. Those of us who work with or for the government have been through furloughs, budget cuts and now the government shutdown.  While none of these are within our control (and largely because they are not within our control), they have many feeling apprehensive about how to perform their duties amidst shrinking resources and continuing uncertainty.

It’s only natural for people to feel overwhelmed and stressed during uncertain times like we are facing now.  Sometimes, the pace of change, the uncertain future and the perception that much of what is happening is out of people’s control can cause “change fatigue”, impacting people’s energy, attention, focus, attitudes and productivity.  Despite all of that, there is important work that needs to be done.

During uncertain times, it helps for teams to get together and revisit, review and redefine their circles of influence. Identifying what is under your control and clarifying what the highest priorities are given the current situation often helps people find their balance.

This is an exercise based on a diagnostic model I created as part of the NTL Organization Development Certificate Program that leaders can do with their teams, either using an outside facilitator or on their own if they feel comfortable doing so, to help everyone voice the pressures they are feeling around the work that needs to get done and prioritize those things that are most necessary to address now. It can also help teams feel prepared and create contingencies plans in case another event disrupts daily work.

Put It All on the Table:Table1

Draw a table on a flip chart or whiteboard. Then begin the facilitated discussion below. (You can also just tell the group that the flip chart paper represents a table and not have to draw one.)

Ask: What pressures are you feeling about the work you need to get done right now?

  • Write them down on sticky notes. One per note.
  • Put them on the table.
  • Depending on time, have everyone at least talk about one thing (biggest stressor) they put on the table.

Ask: Where do those pressures come from?

  • Outside the organization (give examples)
    • Government leaders
    • Economic pressures
    • Customers/public
  • Inside the organization (give examples)
    • Budget concerns
    • Leadership or team issues
    • Constant changes
  • Have the group move the stickies into outside and inside lists – outside on the left side of the table, inside on the right.

Ask: What can we do something about now? Or, what needs to be addressed now?

  • Have the team identify those items and keep those on the table.
    • Ask: Are any of these similar or is there overlap? Can any be combined?
    • Narrow down the number as much as you can, but don’t lose the integrity of the content. Make sure the person whose sticky you are removing, editing or combining with another is in agreement.
  • Put the others aside for now.

Make a list of those still on the table on another flip chart.

  • Ask: Of the items on this list, what is MOST important?  
    • Have people vote with dots on the top 3-5 priorities (depending on how many things are on the table).
  • For the issues receiving the most votes discuss WHY they should be priorities.
    • Ask: What will solving/resolving/addressing these issues get us?

Ask: What do we need to get these important items done?Table3

  • These are the legs that hold the table up, that keep it stable and balanced.
    • Strategy/Goals
    • Leadership/Accountability
    • Resources (People/Money/Tools/Time)
    • Structures/Plans/Processes
  • Ask: What else? What’s missing?
  • Go over these for each priority.
    • Make sure each priority has at least a leader and a goal established. The leader will be responsible for follow-up work after this session.


  • How do we know these are the right priorities?
  • How can we work together to make sure our priorities get done?
  • What can we do to prepare for another change/shutdown/furlough, etc.?
  • Is there anything we need above all else to keep our table from collapsing under the pressure or buckling in the middle?
  • What will we do with the pile  we took off the table?
  • Is there anything we hide under the table, or anything that is stuck there like a piece of old gum that we need to address to move forward with the priorities we identified??

Shut Down by the Shutdown

I returned to the office today after more than two weeks of undeserved, unpaid vacation, courtesy of the US Federal Government. As a contract worker, I will not be getting back pay for the time off, as my government counterparts will. And yes, I’m bitter. Many of us are.

But it’s more than the loss of income. I wasn’t just financially shut down. For the large majority of those long weeks, I was also mentally and emotionally shut down…I pretty much still am, as are most of my co-workers and team members. All the good work we had been doing, the momentum we had gained with our clients, the progress we were making, all of that stopped – and was forever changed – by this event. Worst of all, we are facing the same fate in another 90 days. And for what?

The thing many of those who inflicted this situation on us don’t seem to understand is the high cost of ambiguity, chaos and distrust and the ripple effect these will have on the system for a very long time to come. Many leaders are touting that it’s back to business as usual now that they have “flipped the switch” and brought everyone back. As if we can just magically emotionally erase all that happened and go back to things just as they were before all of this happened. Here’s a clue: we can’t.

Hell, I don’t even remember what was I was doing before all of this happened. It has had a dramatic and traumatic effect, and it will continue to do so, especially as the threat of a repeat performance continues to dance in our heads. Losing my income was one thing. Losing my optimism, positivity and trust…well, that’s something else all together.

For those who don’t care about that, who live in a world where emotions shouldn’t impact a person’s work, consider this: Disengaged employees — those who don’t trust their employer or are unsure about their fate on the job — don’t try as hard because they don’t see the point, they don’t feel valued or they don’t feel safe. Why spend the energy when it’s all going to go up in smoke again? Gallup has estimated that employee disengagement costs the overall US economy as much as $350 billion every year.

I wonder what that number would look like right now for those of us who serve the US Government…? My guess is that the country will lose more in disengagement costs than it is paying out in back pay for those furloughed federal workers who returned to the job this week. Just a guess…


My Uncle Vaughn’s Last Gift to Me

Uncle VaughnMy Uncle Vaughn Burnside passed away on Monday, May 13, 2013 at the age of 70 of a rare and very aggressive form of cancer. He was diagnosed just five weeks before he died, and I am still somewhat in shock.

This Tuesday, my brother Pete and I were honored to speak at Uncle Vaughn’s memorial service, sharing memories of the man we remember growing up as part of a very close extended family in Northwest Indiana.

He gave us all so many gifts across his life. Pete recalled how Uncle Vaughn’s laugh filled a room and filled Pete with a sense of approval whenever he could coax a laugh out of the normally soft-spoken, somewhat reserved man. I remembered a time when I was maybe two or three, and Uncle Vaughn sat on the floor with my dad and played with me. One of the best gifts Vaughn gave his sister (my mom), Pat, was the gift of compassion and support in traveling from Iowa to Indiana to help transition their mother (my grandma) into an assisted living facility after she began showing signs of dementia.

For me, the last gift Uncle Vaughn gave me made a lasting impression. Two weeks ago, I flew from Virginia to Minnesota and drove down to Cedar Rapids, Iowa with Pete after receiving the news that Vaughn would only live another three days. He had been moved from the hospital to a beautiful hospice facility when Pete and I arrived with our parents. We were fortunate that he woke up and was lucid shortly after we arrived. We all went to his bedside, one-by-one, to touch him and talk to him.

I walked up and leaned over him. “Hi Uncle Vaughn. I love you,” I said. He spoke, but I couldn’t hear, so I bent close to him. He repeated his words: “You get more beautiful all the time.”

I was so moved I had to step away. Physically I knew I was anything but beautiful that day. I hadn’t showered, I wore no makeup, and my hair was a mess. And yet, I felt beautiful because of the love and respect I have for this man and his family. That’s what he saw and that’s what he spoke.

Hearing him say that, knowing that I needed to hear it, gave me the gift of clarity and perspective and served to underline something I have always known but sometimes forget in the rush and crush of everyday living.  In the end, it doesn’t matter what we look like on the outside, as long as we show up – really show up – with an open heart, love and respect.

Uncle Vaughn did that with his family all the time. He showed up, he was beautiful and he was a gift to this world. His legacy of love will live on in all of us who knew him. In his memory, I plan to do my best to show up, open-hearted and loving every day, because that’s what makes life beautiful.


You CAN Handle the Truth

I’m a truth-teller. Actually I’m a recovering, frustrated truth-swallower who is becoming a brave and daring truth-teller. In my work now, telling the truth to clients is part of the deal. That’s why they pay me, and I tell them up front that I will tell the truth as I perceive it, even if it might be uncomfortable.

The truth must be told, otherwise it becomes a cancer.

I’ve always know this, but thanks to the great data-grounded work of inspirational researcher Brene Brown, I am finally able to breathe into it and say YES! We must share what is not pretty, what is not comfortable, in order to move forward and create better products, better services, better solutions. We can’t create from a place of subversion and spin. True creativity only comes with freedom of expression, free of judgment and shame.

Across my career I’ve had my fill of the-things-we-don’t-talk-about-around-here. I always wanted to know why not? I WANTED to talk about those things and figure out a way to work with them. I’m pretty sure other people did too. I knew the reason was that people were afraid, because I was too, that’s why I didn’t speak up. But what I see now is this: The things we don’t talk about become more powerful the less we talk about them. And the more energy we put into not talking about them, the less energy we have do really great things.

Wait a second. Am I suggesting we allow FEELINGS at work? Or worse, am I suggesting we allow people to TALK about their feelings at work? Yep.

Sure, we all know the saying “It’s not personal, it’s business.” But the truth is, if you are employing human beings, it IS personal. People cannot check their humanness at the door, turn off their feelings, flaws and fabulousness…at least not in a way that is healthy for them or for your business. Tony Schwartz knows the power of truth and practices truth-telling as part of his company culture, allowing people to be themselves at work. Imagine!

How? Well, the how is different for every person and every business. But I can suggest a starting place. Be brave. Realize that you CAN handle the truth, even if it’s uncomfortable. Know that the truth has healing power if it is shared in a safe environment.

Not ready to jump into the fire of truth just yet? Hire a coach to help you untangle your fear and resistance (email me if you want a referral, I know LOTS of compassionate and courageous coaches who will walk with you!) Then, become the truth-teller you were meant to be by starting to model openness and receptivity.

Read this Leadership Manifesto from Brene Brown for more mojo.

Communicating Like a Yahoo!?

I have been following the goings on with  Yahoo! of late with a mixture of curiosity and cringing. While we really don’t have all the information and reasoning behind Marissa Mayer’s decision to put and end to working-at-home for Yahoo! employees, it seems that given the response, the approach by Yahoo! leadership is an example of poor communication, both in planning and execution.

This decision should not have come as a surprise to employees if the change in process and protocol had been effectively, clearly and compassionately communicated through the right channels at the right times. If there is a true business case for “all hands on deck” then that should have been the starting point. Employees want to know why changes are being made. It helps if they understand the business need for the change, otherwise they will assume that company leaders are acting based on their own egos, hubris or preferences without concern for those in the trenches.

And while the business reason behind this change is speculation on my part, as an employee of Yahoo! I would want to know if the competition is eating our lunch and the company’s future, as well as my own, is in jeopardy. I would be willing to sacrifice working from home (for a while) if I knew that by teaming up and showing up, we could help forge a better future for us all. I might even feel inspired to show up if I knew specifically how my contribution has meaning to the company as a whole.

While we don’t know the extent of or the communications approaches used apart from the now infamous memo, which was questionable in several ways, my guess is that more thought was put into the decision to make this change than was put into the process for communicating the change. When leaders underestimate the importance of clear, conscious and consistent communication, they face greater resistance and have a steeper hill to climb during the process of change.

My friend and fellow communication expert Mary-Claire Burick of MC Strategy recently gave a presentation on communicating change and engaging employees in the process. In her talk, she outlined the following pitfalls to effective communication that, if not heeded, fail to produce the intended change:

Communication is done too late

  • Leaders wait for certainty/final decisions to communicate
  • Failing to time releases of information at the same time, in the right order

Communication is too infrequent

  • Failing to consistently communicate or give updates about significant internal/external developments
  • People need to hear a message an average of seven times before it resonates. During change this is probably even further amplified given the anxiety people are feeling. Aim to over communicate and you’ll probably get it right

Communication is too generalized

  • Whitewashing the truth or failing to provide hard facts about the business and specifics around strategy, why the changes are being made and what specifically the implications are
  • Failing to address rumors
  • Not addressing how employees can contribute or what you want them to do
  • Not providing enough information, tools or support to those charged with communicating “down.” Line managers are often unable to communicate the change either because they don’t understand it themselves, haven’t had the chance to explore and own it, or they may lack the skills to communicate effectively with their people, so they focus too much on the details of implementation and not the why of the change

Communication is too impersonal

  • Leaders often deliver messages ‘from afar’ – employees want to hear it from their direct managers in person
  • Senior management are further along the change curve than their employees, so they’ve had the time to work through the change and become accustomed to it, whereas employees have yet to come to grips with the need for change, or the general approach taken to making the change
  • Failing to provide forums for two‐way dialogue and Q&A
  • The task of articulating a strong vision for the future is not something that can be delegated. Not personalizing messages or leaders who become aloof or inaccessible provides a fertile environment for rumors to spread, which affects employee focus and productivity.

I can’t say it often enough. Effective communication isn’t about what is said or even what is heard. Effective communication is about what happens as a result. With poor communication comes speculation and distrust,  neither of which will help Yahoo!..especially if it really does need an all-hands approach for the time being.



This is the second of two essays I contributed to a World Book of Values, being compiled by Belgian consultant Patrik Somers. My last blog post on intention is my other contribution.

I chose to write about surrender because it is a value I struggle with daily. Coming from a culture that values doing, independence and control, the idea of surrender seems like giving up, giving in, copping out or becoming a victim of circumstance. America is not a place that values surrender. “Don’t just sit there, do something.” “Do or die.” Just the other day I saw a sign that read, “Sink or swim.”  

These beliefs, steeped in hundreds of years of struggle, still drive so many today. But often those of us not struggling to survive tend to “swim” out of resistance; we don’t want to be where we are, so off we go, flailing wildly in an attempt to be anywhere other than here. And yet, the more furiously we swim, the more energy we burn.  We sink when we have burned our energy and can swim no more, or when we are so overwhelmed by our resistance to what is happening that we give up and go under.

There is another option: to float, which is the essence of surrender. It’s the deep breath that keeps our heads above water and allows us to lie back, relax, assess, and accept what is. Surrender is not about quitting. It’s about accepting circumstances as they are and being fully present, whether we like what is happening or not, whether we are in control or not. As Byron Katie says, “You can argue with reality but you’ll always lose.” Sometimes it takes surrendering control to gain control.

My first year as an entrepreneur has been all about surrender. I plant seeds about my work here and there and surrender, hoping that Deepak Chopra is right that, “You find your path not by thinking, feeling or doing but by surrendering.” So far, so good.

Although ironically, just today I was feeling the anxiety that comes when I am not surrendering and am pressuring myself to produce and perform.  I was feeling guilty and stressed and under pressure to write this essay, yes this essay about surrender…Ha!  So I turned my friends on Facebook and asked them what they do when they are feeling unmotivated. These are the responses I received:

  • Just go with it……when I have zero motivation to work I go out (or stay in) and do something fun and resign myself to the fact it just isn’t in the cards to work that day (or week)!
  • Accept the fact that things are a bit off and go with the flow. There’s nothing good or bad about having an off day or week!
  • Be with it, it will pass and you may get to ‘notice’ something you are intended to.

My friends had no idea I was stressed because I was unable to surrender and yet, they all encouraged me to surrender. So I did. And as soon as I stopped resisting and surrendered, as soon as I stopped swimming and started floating, the words came.


In Tension? Check Your Intention.

“Your intentions create the reality that you experience…Therefore, be mindful of what you project…What you intend is what you become.” – Gary Zukav, The Seat of the Soul

Whether we know it or not, whether we admit it or not, every experience we have is guided by the intention we bring to it. The outcomes of our every action and interaction are always aligned with our strongest intentions, whether we are conscious and aware or whether we are hiding or in denial. I have watched myself and others create suffering and joy, skepticism and trust, fear and comfort through the power of both conscious and unconscious intention.

As a child, I used to get so irritated when my brother would make a smart-mouth comment and be rewarded with laughter, whereas if I said the same words in the same context, I would be scolded. I used to think this was unfair. But looking back now, I realize my brother’s intention with his comments was usually to lighten the mood and make others laugh. My intention, on the other hand, was to bring attention to something I was feeling – something I didn’t like and wanted changed—in a passive-aggressive way.  No wonder the reaction was different!

It’s hard work getting to the bottom of our true intentions. We tell ourselves so many flattering and unflattering stories about what we want, what we mean, what we intend, that getting to the real truth of the matter requires the development of awareness that is not taught in most cultures. Gary Zukav, author of many books on consciousness, explains:

“What most people call intentions are actually out-tentions…the application of your will to accomplish a physical goal. An intention is the quality of the consciousness you bring to an action.”

It’s taken me many years, and many consequences, to realize that any time I feel  “in tension” before, during or after a choice, I need to check my intention. What do I consciously intend to be the outcome of this situation? Why?…Then why again and again until the real truth is revealed, gently, with reverence and gratitude. For it is only by uncovering my true, unvarnished intention that I can make a conscious choice and take (or not take) thoughtful, aligned action.

In order to live, work and approach the world with clear, clean, conscious intentions, we must be willing to deeply know and accept ourselves – shadows, blemishes, strengths, gifts and all. We must learn to watch and question our thinking, our feelings, our patterns and our behaviors at all times. We must learn to question ourselves before each choice, action, interaction or transaction to check our true intention. And last, we must ultimately be willing to forgive ourselves and our humanness when, believing we hold one intention, we find ourselves face to face with the consequences of an unconscious intention, no matter how much work we have done.

What are your intentions for this day? How can you bring your consciousness to them?