Steven Gaffney shares the simple shifts that help you feel more powerful at work.
- How to easily redirect negativity into productivity
- Three reframes that make problems more manageable
- Two quick hacks to snap you out of a funk
Steven Gaffney is a leading expert on creating Consistently High Achieving Organizations (CHAO)™ including high achieving teams, honest communication, and change leadership. Steven has worked in more than 25 different industry and market segments for over 25 years. He uses cross-discipline solutions and best practices from other industry sectors to bring fresh, innovative and consistently successful approaches to his clients. He works directly with top leaders from Fortune 500 companies, associations, as well as the U.S. government and military; and is also an author, speaker, and trusted advisor.
- Book: Unconditional Power: A System for Thriving in Any Situation, No Matter How Frustrating, Complex, or Unpredictable
- Website: JustBeHonest.com
- Book: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip Heath
- Book: Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff . . . and It’s All Small Stuff: Simple Ways to Keep the Little Things from Taking Over Your Life (Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff Series) by Richard Carlson
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Steven, welcome to How to be Awesome at Your Job.
Thank you for having me on.
Well, I’m excited to talk about your book Unconditional Power. But first, I want to dig a little bit into… one of your areas of expertise is honesty. I’m curious if, in all your work and research, if there’s an area in your life where oh, you had to do a bit of an honesty upgrade.
You mean honesty upgrade as in like being honest to myself or that something? Is that what you mean?
Yeah. An area where it’s like, “Oh… Given this, I’m seeing a little in myself, perhaps there’s an area I need to be more honest about.”
What actually happened, how I got involved in the work is I started to do some seminars for creative people like photographers and film and radio commercial directors because I used to have a business in that area. So I’m teaching them how to do communication, real basic stuff, and on the side, I would just always give people advice about honesty because I’ve always been a really honest, upfront person.
And one day, a friend of mine said, “You should be teaching this stuff.” So, I guess the honesty moment was around being honest and actually teaching honesty out there. But what I mean by honesty, just so we get this out, it’s not the truth or lies that’s the big hang-up. The biggest problem is not what people say. It’s actually what they don’t say. It’s what they leave out.
So, that was what I realized and starting to teach. And then I developed a nine-step formula on how to share difficult things and have it go well, and we can get into that as well, but that’s how I started and that’s really about the honesty moment, you could say.
What we don’t say in terms of we just choose to omit this because it’ll be uncomfortable, we think we might not like it.
Yeah, think about it this way. How often have you thought, “My gosh, if they just told me that, I could’ve figured out the answer.” A lot of people in their jobs experience this because, “My gosh, if my boss had just told me this, or a coworker just told me this,” or if you’re leading an organization, and you lose a great employee, and you find out the real reason why they walked out the door, and thought, “My gosh, if I had known that was what was bothering them, what prompted them to look, we could’ve done something about it.”
Really, when you look at life, and I challenge people, the number one problem isn’t what people tell us. It’s actually what they don’t tell us. It’s what they leave out. So, the trick of the whole thing is to try to get the unsaid said. And I don’t mean that people try to hold back from an evil standpoint. People are often afraid to share really what’s going on with them and with others.
That’s true. So, speaking of some of this emotional stuff, your latest book Unconditional Power is about some of that, how we can do some thriving in situations that are frustrating or complex or unpredictable. Tell us, what’s the big idea here?
Well, the big idea is that most people suffer from conditional-ism. Now, that’s not going to make a lot of sense till I explain it, so let me explain it really easily. The three different types of moods or mindsets we all get into. One mindset is powerless. That’s where we say, “What difference can I make? I’m only one person here.”
Conditional mood is kind of this next-thing mindset, and that’s where we say, “We recognize we have some power over this situation but it’s conditional on other things.” And so, we say, “I can do that as long as they give me more money, or as long as there’s more resources, or as long as I have the right time.” There’s always a condition to the power.
But the most powerful state is when we are powerful, and that’s where we recognize there’s conditions but we’re in charge and we ask ourselves, “What am I going to do about this situation?” So, the big aha was doing work with so many organizations, what I discovered was many people think they’re powerful but they’re really conditionally powerful. And they’ll say, “I can do that as long as…” But the objective is how to be unconditionally powerful.
Hence, the whole idea of the book and how to get that done. Does that make sense?
Certainly. Well, so is that even possible? Aren’t all of our powers subject to conditions?
Well, here’s the thing. I’ve worked with a lot of successful people, and I’m sure yourself as well. Whenever you’ve overcome a challenge, you haven’t been conditionally powerful. You said, probably in a powerful state, “I recognize the situation,” but you focus 100% of your energies on what you’re going to do about the situation.
For example, a client of mine lost a big contract. Now, they could’ve rationalized to the whole organization, “It’s our biggest contract. We’re really doomed and we’ll do as best as we can, given that we lost a big contract.” But what the CEO said, and what all the top leaders said is, “No, we’re not going to use that as an excuse. It is what it is. We clearly lost this. But what are we going to learn from it and what are we going to do about it?” And they’re having one of their best years ever as a result because they didn’t waste time being conditionally powerful, which is really kind of the state of excuses. They, instead, have been powerful.
Let me give you example in my own life. So, in 2009, I got diagnosed with cancer, and I’m completely fine now, so fast-forward to that. But, also, 2009, was in the middle of the great recession. And so, one of the first things to go, obviously, were things what I do for a living: consulting, speaking, that type of thing. But what I said to myself was, “I can’t control that I have cancer, and I can’t control that there’s a recession, but I can control what I’m going to do about it.”
So, I didn’t allow myself to have excuses and I spent 100% of my time focusing on what I was going to do about it. And from that point on, we’ve had our best years ever. And some of the strategies in the book is really what I learned from others about how to be unconditionally powerful. So, yes, it is often the state we’re on in the conditional side, but we’re really being conditionally powerful and it is around being powerfully unconditionally powerful, and that’s the state of when we make things happen.
So, when you say state as in sort of like our emotional, internal way of being?
Yeah, absolutely, because I make the argument in the beginning of the book. Have you ever noticed that when you’re in a good mood you’re smarter? Think about that. Like, when we’re in a good mood, and somebody throws us a problem, we’re like, “All right, this is a problem, but I’m going to figure out a way.” But when we’re in a bad mood, maybe a lack of sleep, or whatever the case may be, somebody throws us a problem, and you’re like, “Ah, here we go again. Not another problem,” right?
Or, we might say things like, “No good deed goes unpunished. We’re always having some challenges,” or, “What am I going to do about this situation?” And so, it’s easy to affect our mood, and our mood impacts our actions. So, I make the argument in the book that, as leaders, and as friends, the most important thing is to have a great state of mind, but, really, what we’re looking at is mood.
So, mood matters. Mood really does matter. And the objective is to have mood discipline because we can be in good moods and bad moods but what if we can be in a great mood on demand rather than by accident, and that’s a big part of the book.
Well, that sounds very appealing. I’d like that very much. Tell us, Steven, how does one get into a good mood on demand?
Well, there’s ten strategies in the book.
All right. I’ll need them all.
So, we can go through as many as we can. Well, and the thing about it is it’s not like hold tight till we get to number five. No, let me give you some real ones that they can move on immediately. So, one of them is intentional disruption. So, have you ever been in this situation where you can see things going downhill, or somebody gets in an argument and something is going downhill? And what we end up being is a victim to a meeting, a victim to a dinner party, a victim to something, and we’re like, “What am I going to do about this?”
Intentional disruption is the idea that human beings are creatures of patterns and associations, which is there’s nothing wrong with it as long as it’s working, but when it’s not, we have to intentionally disrupt it. So, let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. First on the personal side on how I use this. I had a dinner party a while back. And do you ever have one of those couples over and they’re great but they could start to get into an argument and they can bring everybody else down? Well, that’s what started to happen.
And so, I just used intentional disruption, and I said in the middle of them having an argument, I said, “Can I ask you a question?” And one of my friends, she goes, “Yes.” And I said, “Well, what do you love about him?” And she kind of jolted her head back, and she said, “Well, he does always have my back.” And then he started to say some favorable remarks, and it shifted. I disrupted the pattern.
In a meeting. So, let’s say you’re in the leadership, you’re in a meeting, and you’re dealing with an issue, and you can feel everybody kind of being in a down mood. Intentionally disrupt it. So, one way to do that is begin a really tense meeting that you have to talk about a problem, do a go-around and say, “What’s the biggest win that’s happened to us over the past month as a company? What’s the best thing that’s happened to you?”
And by the mind going there, it actually puts it in a good mood, good spirit when they’re answering that question. And then when you go back into the problem, they’re looking at it from a good mood, a good perspective. Those are examples of intentional disruption. And the good news is we don’t have to be the leader to use these types of strategies.
Yeah, I like that a lot. When it comes to questions, boy, I see it in my brain and I think it’s the human condition. When posed a question, we just want to go after an answer, and it’s like we’re just running after that thing. And so, it is an effective redirection pretty quickly is asking a great question. So, can you share with us a couple other favorite questions that do a good work in terms of getting us into a positive mood with that disruption?
Yeah, and I’m not talking about just being big motivational talk, because people say, “Oh, motivational talk, how long does it last?” It really is about being sensitive to the mood of us and others. So, another example is you could say to somebody who’s really challenged with a problem, is I love using the magic wand question, which is, “Well, if I gave you unlimited time, money, how would you approach this?”
Or, when somebody doesn’t know what to do in their career, I’ll say to them, “Okay, if you had unlimited talent, but you had to choose a job so you’re not going to work for free, what would, ideally, you would love to do?” And, see, people often look at their life from the past into the future, but when you ask the magic wand question, it creates an energy and excitement about the future, and you’re releasing all those other conditions to look at things.
And it doesn’t mean that we can make that happen overnight, but what it does is it jolts the mind out of why we can’t do something, or, “I don’t know what to do.” Because you just say, “If I gave you a magic wand, what would you ideally like to happen in this relationship, in this conversation?” And what you’ll find when you ask people that question, it will jolt them, and they’ll often say, “Well, I don’t know.” And then a really good comeback to that is say, “Well, if you did know, what would your hunch be?”
It’s interesting, when you just say that, people say, “Well, is it that simple?” Yeah. If somebody says, “I’m confused,” you say, “Well, if you weren’t confused, what do you think would happen?” Because what you’re trying to do is have them engage in the future and where you want to go. So, the magic wand question is the case.
Another good on the innovation front is, “What if the opposite was true?” So, somebody says, “We need more resources.” “What if the answer to the problem was we needed less resources?” “But we need more resources.” “But what if?” So, you use the what-if principle, and that gets them thinking differently. But my point in bringing this up is we need to be in control of the questions rather than suffering from answers we don’t like. We just can redirect it.
So, for example, somebody is really critical of us. You say, “Well, thank you for the feedback. Can I ask you one question?” They’ll say yes, and most likely. Say, “Well, what do you like that I have done? I understand that’s a feedback that I haven’t done these things correct. But tell me something that I’ve done right,” and see it jolts their mind in a different direction. You’re not discounting the feedback but that’s how you can get balanced feedback as well.
The point being is don’t suffer in silence. Don’t suffer from the things that aren’t going well. Intentionally disrupt it. That’s just one of the strategies in the book, and I can go through more as well.
Please do. So, that’s intentional disruption, a great question redirects things to help you get into a good mood on demand. What’s another strategy?
Reframe to refocus. So, the idea of this is back to the powerless conditional and powerful state. When we’re in a state of mind or mood or whatever that is not serving us, and we all can get in these moods, “What difference can I make? I’m only one person,” we feel powerless or somewhat powerful but it’s conditional. So, that’s how we’re looking at a problem. But if we reframe the problem, put a different context to it, it can make us more powerful.
So, let me give you an example. There’s three types of reframes, and I’ll go through the first one as an example. We can go through the others. But it’s reducing the frame. Reducing the frame. So, have you ever had a situation which is really seemingly the odds are against you, or it’s a business problem, or something going on in your life where it sounds like there are so many problems, and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, where do I start?”
Well, reducing the frame would say, “While all that could be the case, what are the most important things I need to do now?” So, let’s say you’re on overwhelm. You’ve got business stuff and other things, you say, “Okay, what is the most important thing in my life?” whether it’s family, whether it’s work, or let’s just say work, “What’s the most important thing to do that I need to do now?” But that is reframing. Leaders can use this really well where people are stuck in a problem that seems very complex. The idea is to make it simple.
So, an example would be where you might say, “What are some key performance indicators?” So, we got a lot of things to consider, but what’s the most important thing? Let me give you an example. I worked with a company that was really suffering in revenue, and their backlog to business is really poor, and, Pete, they had all these key performance indicators, and, of course, people are like making this problem really complex.
And I said to them, “Well, how often do you see the customer?” And they said, “Well, that’s a good question. We spend a lot of time internally.” And I said, “Why don’t you have a key performance indicator and just monitor people going to see the customer, customer interactions?” And people could say, “But what about the quality of the interactions? What about your marketing?” I said, “Look, look, just focus on going to see the customer,” because that’s what they weren’t doing, and that was a big needle-mover. So, they focused on just going to see the customer and their whole pipeline turned around.
So, somebody, I think it was Albert Einstein who said, “It takes genius to make a complex problem simple but it doesn’t take genius to make it more complex.” I’m not sure he exactly said that. But when you think about it, have you ever met somebody who can make a complex problem even more complex, and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, what are we going to do?” But what you’re doing is you’re reducing the scope of it. You’re reducing the frame. And then when somebody says, “Well, I can do that. I can get that done.” And so, that’s the idea behind reducing the frame. Does that make sense?
Oh, yes. Thank you. And how about a third strategy?
Well, so let me cover a couple things on the reframe because there’s a lot to dig deep there that I think between intentional disruption and reframing people could change things. Another type of reframe is enlarging the frame. Enlarging the frame is have you ever had something bad happen to you and you’re feeling down, or maybe other people are feeling down?
Enlarging the frame is putting it in a bigger picture. And what you’re saying is, “While that is bad, we lost a customer,” or, “While this is bad, this conversation didn’t go well or this meeting didn’t go well, let’s put a perspective. We’re doing well here, we’re doing well here, we’re doing here. And this is happening, and this is happening.” And, suddenly, people see it in a bigger picture.
What you’ll notice is, really great leaders like Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and all the historical ones, but any great leader you feel kind of you want to follow are really good at enlarging the frame. What they’re doing is they’re creating a bigger vision, and they’re saying, “While these are issues, we need to see the big picture, the future.” And enlarging the frame makes people feel more powerful. That would be an example of that.
And the third type of reframe is you change the frame. That’s where you say, you just change it to a direction you want. I’ll give you an example there. I hired a company to work on an IT project and they were really behind, and I was getting annoyed. And so, I said, “When are you going to get this finished?” And, in essence, I can go the long version of it, but, in essence, what was happening was they said, “Well, it’s going to take us about four months,” which would’ve been in November. This was a couple of years ago.
And I said, “Given that I would like it, ideally, done in a month, what would need to happen?” which is basically just one month instead of four months. “And I’ll credit the company.” The company said and shot me an email filled with action items that if I could agree to it, they could get it done in a month, and it was done in six weeks.
Now, what’s interesting to unpack there? Well, most people would work in the existing frame, “It won’t be done till November.” “Well, how do we get it done shorter? And how do we get it done in October?” whatever. But I just said, and I wasn’t demanding in a jerk-type of way, I just said, “Given that I, ideally, would like it done in a month, playing at this, what would need to happen?”
So, you can use change the frame. You just say the prepositional phrase. So, for example, you’re having a difficult time with somebody. You might say, “Given that, look, we have a lot of arguments, but given I, ideally, want us to get along great, what would need to happen?” You see, that’s creating a different frame rather than “Let’s try to solve the problem.” Solving the problem would be the existing frame, but reframing it, or changing the frame would be, “Given that I want us to get along great, given I want us to work on this and not have any strife, what would need to happen?”
And so, those are examples of changing the frame. How is this landing with you, Pete? I know I’m doing all the talking.
Oh, it’s good. Yes, I like it. Let’s hear a third strategy.
Another great one is, oh, act and you will become. So, when you look at a lot of times, when we’re sometimes down, and so a way to trigger ourselves is to be the person we want to be. So, imagine you’re playing a movie of your powerful self, how would you act? So, in other words, you might feel down but that’s where you might smile, you might change your body, like you’re an actor in a movie.
And what you find by researching great actors is they don’t play the part; they become the part. And becoming the part means really stepping into it. So, if you’re feeling conditional or powerless, it would be acting and you will become. So, you’re tricking your mind to get into that powerful state, and then that helps move it forward.
Now, I will say, I don’t like the terminology fake it till you make it because there’s something insincere. But what I’m saying is access to just becoming that, so you’re not doing the lip service, not just, “I now want to smile.” That’s kind of fake. But it’s like, “No, I’m going to smile, I’m going to carry my body differently, I’m going to change the tone. I’m going to really be that part and see how that feels.” And it’ll often trick your mind into changing things.
I’ll give you a very simple, another one that’s so simple we often forget it, and it’s make the unaware aware. Make the unaware aware. So, let’s go back to that distinction. You got powerless, you got conditional, and you got powerful. So, what I’ve experienced is that a lot of people, now I mentioned this earlier but I’ll apply it to the strategy, where they think they’re powerful but they’re really conditionally powerful, “I can get that done as long as, as long as…”
But if you explain this distinction to people, and just from the podcast that we’re doing, what you’ll do is you’ll find out that people will shift to the powerful. In fact, just listening to the podcast and being aware of it. Nobody wants to say, “I love being conditional.” No, people want to be unconditionally powerful but they just don’t think about it. So, making the unaware aware is you explain the distinction. And by explaining it and thinking about it, it’ll automatically, because of awareness, make you become powerful.
An example would be a client of mine, there was an operational problem. And I had taught his folks on the strategies, and so they came into his office, and they said, “We got a problem.” You ever have somebody just dump a problem on you? And he said, “Look, I understand we have a problem here. So, how are we all being about it?” People said, “Well, we’re being conditional.” And he said, “How would we act if we were being powerful about it?” And people said, “Well, I think we should be doing this, and we should do this, and this.”
And they, suddenly, came up with a whole bunch of ideas, and they shifted from the complaint mode, which is kind of the excuse conditionally powerful, and they solved the problem, he said, within about five to ten minutes. It was just a matter of being aware of catching that. That’s another strategy as we’re talking about things.
And in the book and stuff like this, I know we’re going super, super fast, but there’s a lot of examples to trick even more doing this, but we can continue, too. But, anyway, make the unaware aware is another really successful strategy.
All right. Yeah, let’s hear a fifth.
So, another one is input drives output. The input drives output. We are a product of who we’re around, if you think about it. Jim Rooney is a motivational speaker, he subsequently has passed away, but he said, “We are a product of the five people we spend the most time with.” And so, what I have found is, if you think about it, if we have a down mood or our mindset is feeling powerless or conditional, who are we surrounded by? Who are our friends? Where are we watching on television? What are we doing?
Pete, did you find out, you probably experienced this, did you ever meet during the COVID period where they had CNN running 24/7? Nothing wrong with CNN but it was like repeat, repeat, repeat. Well, if you got all that negative input, of course, it’s going to bring you down. So, I’m a big fan of knowing what and being aware of what’s going on, but what’s the input into our minds? So, if we’re feeling down, or we’re feeling like things aren’t going our way, or we’re being powerless or conditional, we really want to ask ourselves who are we surrounded by. Who are we being?
So, this is like, as parents, people are sensitive to who their children are around, but it’s really an example would be you’ve got somebody at work who’s just self-righteous, who’s just really difficult to deal with, and you’re saying, “I can deal with them maybe but what’s the impact to other people?” And so, input drives output is honoring the idea of who are we surrounded by.
So, one of the exercises I love to do with people is I’ll say, “Write down the names of the five people you spend the most time with. The five people.” And then I’ll have them place them on a grid, which we can talk about, but, in essence, it’s around what kind of person are they. And, inevitably, we are a product of who we hang around with. So, if we don’t like who we’ve become, we got to change the environment. We got to look at things differently.
People say, “I can’t pick and choose everybody I work with.” No. That’s true. But you can pick and choose how much time you spend with a person. You can pick and choose whether you stay on the phone or get off the phone, whether you’re on the Zoom call, or then after the Zoom call, you just jump off and you’re doing other things. You can all the person afterwards or not. And, in a physical sense, when we’re around people at work, you might be in a meeting where somebody that’s way, you can use intentional disruption and the strategies we talked about. And then after the meeting, you can just distance yourself. You know what I’m saying?
I often say to people, “Reward people with the time that they deserve.” And so, who charges us up, we should spend more time with them. And whoever doesn’t, we should distance ourselves from them. Have you ever had somebody who’s like really just brought you down, and you’re like, “Oh, my gosh, I got to get rid of them.” Legally.
Well, yeah, I’ve decided to make some choices associated with folks I like to spend more or less time with, and certainly.
When we’re talking about this stuff, it may sound kind of obvious at certain points and maybe not at every point, or maybe all. I don’t know. It’s up to people, of course. But I really want to challenge them because simple things make a big difference. Somebody wrote a book years ago called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff…and It’s All Small Stuff.
I actually think it’s the opposite. We should sweat the small stuff because it’s the small stuff that matters. It really is. When people say, for example, “Culture at work. What’s the company culture?” My experience is culture is very local, so you can have the broad company culture but if you work for somebody who’s really difficult to deal with, or if you had people who are really challenging, that’s your sense of culture of the organization.
And so, you got to look at certain things, and ask yourself, “Well, it’s the small things that make a big difference, who we hang out with, how we frame up things, intentional disruption, making the unaware aware.” Things of that nature.
All right. Beautiful. Well, now, Steven, could you share a favorite quote, something you find inspiring?
Norman Cousins said, “Death is not the greatest loss in life. The greatest loss in life is what dies within us while we live.” And although that may sound like a downer, but it’s really about don’t let things that are important to you stay inside you. Share it. Do something. Take action. Go after your dreams. And go for what you want and what you deserve.
All right. And a favorite book?
One of my favorite books of all time in change is a book called Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. It’s fantastic. And what’s neat about that book is it’s all about everyday people making major changes in organizations. And there are many, many books I can go through but that’s just one that just comes off the top of my head that I just love.
All right. And if folks want to learn more or get in touch, where would you point them?
If they go to JustBeHonest.com, so our website is JustBeHonest.com, and if they go there and they say that they’ve listened to your show, and here’s the thing, and they write and email us on something they did, and I want to hear an action they took, if they do that and they just share what they did, we’ll send them the book I wrote years ago about how to share the most difficult things to people and have it go well, it was all about how to have honest conversations and have it go well, we’ll send that to them for free. And all I ask them to do is share that they listened to your podcast and share how they’ve used what we’ve talked about.
Beautiful. Well, Steven, thank you. This has been a treat. I wish you much fun and unconditional power.
Thank you. And thank you very much for having me.