Comparison is the Thief of Joy

In working with teams, leaders, and organizations, I have experienced a theme that runs through the struggles they all face. It is the struggle of comparison. Whether the comparison is to an individual personality, success levels of others, cross-functional teams or marketplace competitors, struggle occurs when we hang out in this arena of evaluation and judgment.

The focus of comparison does not live only in teams or at work, we all struggle with it as part of the human condition. Nearly every person I have coached, regardless of how successful they are, struggles with comparison, at least part of the time.

The problem does not come from comparing outcomes, as that can actually generate inspiration and possibility thinking. It’s the comparison of personal worth, value, or contribution that is the source of the struggle.

Releasing the struggle of trying to be someone you’re not generates tremendous relief. Some of the descriptions I hear include a sense of ease overall, a physical sensation of softening in the heart, belly, or shoulders and an overall feeling of letting go…like a big exhale.

We are each unique in the truest sense of the word. Inimitable. Matchless. Irreplaceable. Exceptional. Think of a precious child in your life. Close your eyes and see their face. Hear their expression, their experiences, their learning, their joy, their desire and their free-spirited self. There is no way you could every truly compare that child to someone else. It is so easy to see their uniqueness. So why would we look in the mirror or watch others and compare who we are to who they are? It’s actually absurd! It’s snubbing the Universal Source – however that is defined for you.

You have full permission and the responsibility to establish your own goals for your own reasons. And you get to chart your own course toward achieving those goals. It doesn’t matter how your goals compare to others, they belong to the one and only you. At the same time, recognize and remember that the possibilities of your full self-expression are limitless and absolutely beyond compare.

Success is a Choice

Today is a gift. When I truly stop thinking about the future (where will I move next…rent or buy…down payments…scary market…neighbors I want to move away from…schools for Kaya…traffic…workmate…renting her house…being too close…and on and on and on!) I am free. Otherwise, all of those thoughts inside of 30 seconds start to spin out of control and before my first sip of coffee, I have created the gravity of self-imposed gloominess. And without conscious intervention, that self-imposed gloominess will foreshadow everything and even determine how I choose to create my experience today.

But on this day, I had the good fortune of giving myself just 15 minutes of intentional solitude and reflection BEFORE ANYTHING ELSE. Just 15 minutes! I was able to not only catch the insanity as it occurred, but to actually experience a 180 degree turnaround of sitting in the REALITY of this moment and this day.

Reality today is that I am unbelievably fortunate and free to create my world joyfully. I get to do work that I love and  make a difference just by showing up with an attitude of gratitude and openness. I am healthy, relatively pain free (middle aged bodies do get a bit tighter in the mornings!), my family is safe today, and any problems that might arise will definitely be of the “first world”! The choice is to fully invite and embrace all of the joy that is possible or to focus on guilt, fear, comparison, and ultimately gloominess.

Success is a choice and it begins with a state of mind. I define what success looks like and today the ultimate success is simple and accessible. Choose joy and spread joy through every encounter. The rest will unfold through conscious intent and action.

What do you choose today?

Winning with Discretionary Engagement

I recently had the privilege of working with an extraordinary CEO (and his leadership team) of a well-known public company in the Bay Area. This leader is both conscious and connected. He is conscious of the world and people around him, the complexities of his business and all of its stakeholders, and conscious of the individuality of each person he leads. He is connected to his own authenticity, his humility, his power, and his grace as a leader. He has successfully turned around a company that was very close to demise and sits now at the threshold of a wave that will likely carry the company and all of its stakeholders to uncharted and exciting territories in the years ahead.

During a group discussion about the traits of excellence in leadership, this CEO (I’ll call him Scott) shared the following statement: “When I interviewed for this position, I said, ‘give me any ten people and I will get more engagement out of them than anyone you put me up against. And not just normal engagement, I’ll get their discretionary engagement.’” Discretionary engagement…the secret ingredient of not only leadership excellence, but of achieving results that outperform the competition, the industry, and any standard measures of success.

Discretionary engagement goes way beyond the measures of time. Think about the engagement level of an excited new hire. Typically, they are excited about the company, open to everything, eager to learn and serve, focused on the positive and the possible, and caring deeply about the success of the business. They bring 110% of themselves to the table…their very best ‘A’ game every day. The return to the company of this engagement level, compared to the average employee that is operating at 70-80% of their potential if you are lucky, is immeasurable. It is the difference between the leaders of the pack and…well…the pack.

I asked Scott how he went about cultivating this high level of engagement, particularly when joining a company in desperate times. Here are the highlights of his simple wisdom:

Show up fully present and engaged as a leader every day.

Bring awareness, acceptance, and appreciation of the individuality of each team member.

Develop a personal understanding of the strengths to be leveraged and create an intentional trajectory with each individual team member. Recognize that some trajectories will be steep with rapid growth and other’s will be moderate, but deliver steady and growing results over time.

Invest the time to understand and determine personal adaptation strategies to most effectively lead each key team member. Demonstrate that you care in a way that is meaningful to the individual.

Balance drive and confidence with authenticity, transparency, and even vulnerability. This creates safety and builds trust.

Keep challenging and calling people forth. Pull them to the vision of their highest potential.

Keep asking for input, listening to input, and demonstrate follow through on the commitments that result.

It is rare to meet a leader that first of all understands these principles, but more importantly exercises them consciously and consistently. Tap into this reservoir of hidden power and you will see the results in your bottom line.

Truth in Leadership:

The most successful leaders know how to fully engage their teams through authenticity, transparency, and the ability to recognize, adapt and call forth many different and even contrasting strengths and motivation factors. They know how to identify and leverage the many different strengths of their team in a complementary way. They know how to coach their teams to do the same thing. It takes time, intentionality, and self-awareness. It will take you to much greater heights.

The Power of Discretionary Engagement

The power of an employee’s discretionary engagement cannot be emphasized enough. It is the single most powerful ingredient a company can harness for success and competitive advantage in the marketplace. But what is “discretionary engagement” exactly? It is subtle, difficult to measure, and critical to achieving beyond ordinary results. Here is one story that illustrates just how elusive and yet impactful this ingredient can be.

It’s a Sunday morning and Karen is on her way to the airport, traveling to Texas for a week of leadership training for her new employer. She’s talking to a former colleague along the way and as she approaches the airport, she mentions how nice it is that she can park onsite at the airport with this new employer with no guilt or explanation. The travel policy is quite clear and employees are completely empowered to park wherever they prefer when traveling on business for the company. She is feeling highly valued and cared for as an employee.

Nine months earlier…

Karen is on her way to the airport, traveling on business for her previous employer. As a senior consultant, she is asked to travel extensively for the company and she is one of the highest revenue generators, directly facing the end clients each day. Karen has a family that she leaves each time she travels but has never complained as she is committed to her company’s success and travel is a part of that.

Earlier that week, Karen received a memo from her boss. In it, he made an indirect request to park off site at the airport when traveling on company business. This was not a direct mandate but an inferred directive…i.e. “if you can”, “when you’re not pressed for time”, etc. The rationale for the request was in service of being a good steward of the business.

This business is highly profitable and clients are charged back full T&E, typically loaded up by at least 25%.

Karen’s perception of the memo was a feeling of hypocrisy. Overcharge the clients and then ask your employees that are traveling on their own time and missing their families to park off site to save the company a few dollars. Ask your key employees to spend more of their time or hassle/discomfort so that the boss can personally earn a few more dollars of profit.

Due to the unclear messaging and the indirect request, Karen was left to use her own personal judgment. She and most of her peers chose to continue parking onsite at the airport, following their personal values of time.


Karen felt de-valued, unappreciated, and personally conflicted because she wants to be a good employee and good steward of the business, but she also wants to get in and out of the airport as quickly as possible to get home to her family. She and her peers spent time talking about the situation, judging the leader, judging the company, and ultimately questioning their value to the company. All of this was happening to the employees that deliver the highest revenue generation to the business.

Several months later, following other similar actions by the company and continued magnification on things like parking, Karen’s questioning of her value and contribution to the business intensified and she started looking for other opportunities and ultimately left the company.

Back to Today:

Karen is flourishing as a leader, highly valued by not only her direct reports in a short time, but also quickly being valued as the right hand to one of the most senior directors of her current employer, a fortune 500 company. She is engaged more than ever before in her life, learning, stretching and delivering exceptional value to her team and her company. She also considers parking off site at the airport when not pressed for time because she feels invested in her company and truly wants to be that good steward.

Truth in Leadership:

This is the truth that leaders sometimes deny…demonstration of value to your key players must be on their terms, not yours. Greed and personal interests always leak through to employees. Actions speak louder than any words, stories, or attempts at persuasion. If you want the success that can only be experienced through the full power of engagement, including discretionary engagement, you must demonstrate appreciation and acknowledge value through all of your actions, large and small.

Leaders Leak the Truth

I was recently working with a complex team of experts and their new leader. I’ll call her Kate. Kate brought impeccable experience, having served globally and in rich culturally diverse conditions for many years.  She now was serving in an even greater senior capacity and directly impactful role. Kate had decided to invest a little more than half a day in a teaming program to help form the team, help them get to know one another, and help the team get to know her. Kate’s primary goal was to build trust, camaraderie, relationships and rapport through the creation of a strong foundation of healthy interaction. This team is responsible for the delivery of some life-changing, world-altering goals over the next 5 years and Kate wisely realized that investing in their formation was critical. With 18 people on the team, this was a large capital investment in terms of time for the people sitting in the room, but one that she was confident to make.

Through the course of the session, the team experienced a lot of cohesion work. Following that work, we moved into a “Meet the Manager” segment, which was delivered press style. The purpose was to accelerate the team’s understanding of Kate and her management preferences and to allow an opportunity for open dialogue. Kate was answering facilitated questions from me and from her own group, which had been solicited in advance.

One of the concerns raised by members of the team was that they really wanted to be involved in providing historical and experiential information and context to enhance and accelerate Kate’s on-boarding experience. Many members of the team had been serving for over five years in their role, bringing an on-the-ground perspective and direct experience of various leaders and collegial teams. They had rich information to offer.

As is often the case, Kate had been seeking input and experience of other leaders at her peer level and more senior levels and she had not been seeking the input of her own team members. In my experience, this is fairly common as new leaders seek the input of other peers, colleagues, and senior leaders as a pathway of starting something new. They hope to get into action, generate a bunch of data, and form recommendations that will enhance their credibility and show their results quickly. Unfortunately, this tactic often leaves their own team members feeling a bit deflated, certainly undervalued and under-appreciated and really not seen – almost invisible.

As this dialogue got underway, a courageous member of the team asked Kate to consider including and incorporating their input to her data gathering process relative to their strategic direction. In her gracious response she said, “absolutely, we will continue to…your input it very important…we will ask your input…I will seek your input…we want to be polite in gathering the input from you.”

Kate didn’t recognize the impact of that word polite, but it was felt in the room. Kate was leaking the truth. And the truth was she didn’t really want the input of the team – at least that’s the truth that was exhibited. Whether it’s true or whether it’s not true, the impact of that type of comment can be more demoralizing than one would imagine. Frequently, leaders are not fully aware of what they’re saying, but more importantly they’re not aware of their own truth.  Unintentionally, Kate diminished the value of the day for some because their perception of her comment was not positive. Common thoughts were (and ARE in this type of situation) “you’re manipulating us”, “you’re condescending”, and “you’re not being truthful.” “You’re saying you value our opinions and clearly you don’t.” “You’re just doing it as a token and not valuing it and therefore we’re not valued.” Unfortunately, it’s not a large leap to then thinking; “and if I don’t believe this about you, then I’m probably not going to believe very much else about you. And therefore, I’m going to choose at this moment in time not to trust you, not to disclose too much, not to offer too much because first of all I don’t think you value it and second of all I don’t know what you’re going to do with it. “

Kate missed an opportunity with some members of the team, based on one little word. The point of this is not about monitoring your words and thinking too hard about what you’re saying because that causes it’s own ill effect. What it’s about is telling the truth. For Kate, it would have been better for her team, and it would have generated a better result to simply say something like, “at the level I’m playing, and with the level of goal and intensity that we have, politically or otherwise, I must get the input of the senior leaders on this team and politically I must follow their direction and their guidance. I’m certainly open to your input but I must be honest in telling you that I will have to follow the input of the senior leaders of the team. And that’s because this is my reality.“ So being vulnerable and telling the truth about her reality and why she may have needed to play it differently would have moved her and her team more quickly to her original goal of building trust and a strong foundation of healthy interaction. Truth and transparency always gives you the better result.

Truth in Leadership:

Many leaders that I work with day in and day out are very put off by this type of conversation. After all, we are talking about teams of highly intelligent, successful, and presumably mature individuals. From the leaders’ perspective, this is a ridiculous waste of time, childlike behavior, insecurity, selfish, etc., etc. That may be so; however, it is reality. Regardless of age, tenure, position, success level, hierarchy, gender…people are people and people are motivated or inspired by their own values and by being included and leveraged for their strengths. If you want a fully engaged and vitally functioning team, the “small” things cannot be ignored and the truth must be steadfast.