I travel on planes a lot. I recently took my 56th flight in 2012 from Amsterdam to Birmingham on KLM. In the last five years while working in Kiev, yet living in the UK, I must have heard the same announcements hundreds of time as I travelled between the two locations. The seats upright, the tray tables away, the electrical items switched off and the seat belt fastened. Then these recognisable safety instructions come over the loudspeakers:
In case there is a loss in cabin pressure, oxygen masks will drop from the ceiling. Pull the mask towards you, secure the elastic strap to your head, and breathe normally…. Please make sure to secure your own mask before assisting others.
It’s always struck me as strange. I understand why that would be the advice, but if I was travelling with my family or especially when my children were small, I am sure that my gut reaction in that situation would have seen me desperately making sure the people around me could breathe. Truth is, if I were asphyxiating myself, I would not be in any fit state to be able to help anyone. The airlines advice to make sure that you can breathe first is the surest way that you can have of giving oxygen to others. It’s a life-threatening reason you need to give yourself oxygen, before you can give it to others.
Earlier, before I had boarded the plane, I read a quote on my twitter feed from John Maxwell that was playing on my mind, “Encouragement is the oxygen of the soul.” We all need encouragement. Maslow taught us that all humans have a need to be respected and to have self-esteem and self-respect. Esteem presents the normal human desire to be accepted and valued by others. People need to engage themselves to gain recognition and have an activity or activities that give the person a sense of contribution, to feel self-valued, be it in a profession or hobby. Everyone needs large draughts of positive reinforcement in the same volumes as they do oxygen. Leaders understand this fact. Leaders appreciate the critical nature of giving specific, relevant and timely feedback to the staff they lead. There is nothing worse than working in a vacuum. It sucks the life out of people. The founder of Chick-fil-A Truett Cathy said, “How do you know if someone needs encouragement? If they’re breathing they need encouragement.” For those that are suffocating on the job, some timely, specific encouragement could be like the “kiss of life” when they are choking for the lack of precise feedback.
In the excellent book, The Happiness Advantage, by Shawn Achor, he puts forward 7 principles based on solid research that fuel happiness, creativity and productivity in the workplace. In a highly practical and relevant way, he gives realistic strategies for leaders trying to puff the oxygen of recognition into the people they lead. While we may not all be able to employ the approaches that the “Google’s” of the world take with scooters in the hall ways and “bring your dog to work days,” there are still simple ways that we can breathe life into the people we lead each day. In the book Achor cites Alexander Kjerulf (who goes by the wonderful title of Chief Happiness Officer) who tells of a Danish car Company that instituted, “The Grand Order of The Elephant,” a stuffed animal that any employee can give to another employee as a reward for doing something exemplary. As Kjerulf says, not only does this breathe life into the employee as he first receives this, but on-going when people walk by the desk and notice the elephant and go, “hey, what’d get the elephant for?”
I have been working in Ukraine for the last five years and the process of managing people there is very different than my experience of leading people in a Western context. In a culture where smiling at a stranger as you get eye contact on the escalators heading into Metro can get you punched, whereas staring intently is considered normal, the idea of recognition for work well done is perhaps not that customary. It was more; “it’s your job, get on with it.” But things are changing in regard to that view. I thought it would be interesting to experiment to see if any these ideas may work in Ukraine. Although it’s taken a little while for some of the ideas to get on board, “Misha” (they gave the elephant a name and even a guitar!) now proudly sits on someone’s desk every week. It’s just a puff of oxygen.
Another special sign greets the staff each day as they enter into the building; it raises a smile each day. It’s just a waft of oxygen. I am not naïve to believe that this is all it takes to create an environment bursting with the oxygen of recognition, but it does puff a bit of life into the culture and day by day, lungful by lungful, people are feeling valued, acknowledged and recognised. It’s a productive, creative environment and I would like to believe some of that is down to the ratio of recognition oxygen in the air.
Yet, I was left with a perplexing question as I sat in seat 6C. If the principle of the plane is put your own mask on first, before you can take care of the needs of others, what happens if the leader does not get encouragement? What happens if those who lead and provide recognition for others are suffocating in a vacuum for lack of encouragement and recognition for themselves? What if it’s just you running the business? Leadership can be a lonely occupation. What strategies can a leader employ to “make sure you secure your own mask before assisting others?” Finding ways to gain recognition though activities that give the leader a sense of contribution, to feel self-valued, be it through a hobby, voluntary service or a new activity is “life-threatening” to ignore. The excellent advice given by Maurilio Amorim in a blog post about a perspective folder can also be inhalation of oxygen for the leaders soul. As leaders, we ignore this issue at our peril. It’s a life-threatening reason why we need to give ourselves recognition! We can only go so long before we stop breathing. If we try to lead in a vacuum of recognition eventually we will suffocate, say nothing of being able and ready to help the people around us breathe.
Like the airlines say, to make sure that you can breathe first is the surest way that you can have of giving oxygen to others. How do you give the oxygen of recognition to others and yourself? I would love to hear from you.