A former colleague who worked with me in 2008 during the Great Recession recently emailed to tell me she was enjoying my book and that it brought back many memories. “I still vividly remember standing at the Bloomberg machine, watching the stock price plummeting, and you telling me we were going to get through it. While it didn’t seem possible at the time, I believed you. A few gray hairs later, and we were on the other side,” she said.
I was struck by the fact that she remembered this exchange after so long. It clearly made an impression on her, which in turn had an effect on me. As I thought about my colleague’s email, I was reminded of a passage I read by Korn Ferry’s founder, Gary Burnison, about some great advice he received in an evaluation:
“Many years ago, early in my tenure as CEO, I went to New York to meet with a board member to go over the feedback of my 360-degree review. At the end of our three-hour conversation, that board member gave me invaluable advice that has guided me ever since: ‘Never forget that your job is to make people feel better after every conversation than they did before.‘“
Whether we realize it or not, those minor moments that happen in passing have as much of an impact on our employees as the large initiatives and the bigger decisions we think will be our legacy. It’s been said that people never forget the way you make them feel; both Burnison’s story and my colleague’s memory are a testament to this idea.
As leaders, we can take this information and treat it as another “to do” or choose to look at it as an incredible opportunity to affect people. Sure, not every moment can be transformative, but we can recommit ourselves every day to work at influencing those around us in a positive way.
How do we turn these incremental moments into a permanent change in behavior?
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It’s hard not to think of James Clear’s Atomic Habits when presented with this question. Clear believes that changing your perspective is about small, consistent steps aggregating over time. He uses the word “atomic” to describe these seemingly minor steps. They may be atomic-like in isolation, but every atomic effort collectively creates incredible energy in the direction you wish to go.
His four laws provide a terrific framework for reinforcing your positive-influence habit. Let’s look at two of them:
Make It Obvious
A critical factor of this law is to determine where and when you’ll perform this habit. Consider the two examples I mentioned earlier. Both Burnison and I were in one-on-one conversations where one person was confiding in the other. Begin activating this law by looking at your one-on-one interactions in a new light. How do people feel after conversations with you? Encouraged? Clear-headed? Determined? What could you do to leave them in an appreciative mindset? Then migrate your good habit to other settings, such as small groups or meetings.
Make It Easy
Clear explains that you don’t need to map out every feature of a new habit. You simply need to practice it. Every time you repeat an action, you activate a neural circuit associated with that habit. A great way to get started is by using Clear’s Two-Minute Rule. Clear says just about any habit can be pared down to two minutes. Rather than overhaul entire conversations, what can you incorporate into each conversation at the beginning or end? Could it be asking how you can help someone, empathizing, or offering advice? Look for opportunities to repeat this action and activate your brain’s neural pathways.
Today, the colleague in my opening story spends her time helping feed thousands of poor and homeless in her community. She says, “You could say that I’m putting some of your ideas to work every day. I was volunteering a couple of days a week, but when COVID hit, I had to step into a leadership role to redefine how we do things.” It’s reaffirming to hear that you can have a positive impact on the people around you—even in the most trying circumstances. Her story gives me hope that I’m working toward making it a habit. How about you?