10 Things Your Employees Are Dying to Hear from You

Business leaders and owners: What were your last 10 or 15 employee conversations like? Chances are, they included phrases like, “I need you to finish that projection by the end of the day,” or, “I’m putting you on the Brown account,” or, “How much longer do you think it’ll take to finish that PowerPoint the client requested?”

As I know from personal experience, you can’t run a business without addressing these types of issues. (And chances are, unless they’re delivered in a, shall we say, forceful tone of voice, your employees don’t mind hearing pertinent instructions and questions.) But as I learned early on in my career, if your conversations with employees don’t include other types of phrases, too, your team’s morale will probably suffer. Let me explain.

In the midst of the everyday chaos of running a business, leaders often don’t think about what they could or should say to motivate their employees. Often, those leaders assume that their employees know how they feel—about each person’s individual performance and about the company’s health in general. Usually, though, that’s not the case.

They’d never bring it up themselves, but your employees really want to receive affirmation, encouragement, reassurance, respect, and gratitude from you. When you verbalize these things—which takes only a few seconds of your time!—you will notice a big change in your employees’ motivation, commitment, and productivity.

Here are ten phrases that got great results for me at Autopart International. If you start incorporating them into your at-work vocabulary, your employees’ engagement will “blossom” this spring:

*“I need your help.” Yes, your employees will be looking to you to steer your company in the right direction, but I promise, they know you’re human, and they don’t expect you to have all the answers. So the next time you’re facing a difficult decision or brainstorming options, ask your team for help. Rather than losing respect for you as a leader, they’ll appreciate that you treated them as valued partners—and they’ll feel more invested in your company’s future because they had more of a hand in creating it.

*“What do you need from me?” Often, employees are anxious about asking the boss for what they need, whether it’s updated office equipment, more time to complete a project, advice, etc. By explicitly asking what you can give them, you extend permission for your people to make those requests. Be sure to treat any requests you receive seriously. If you can’t give an employee what she asks for, explain why and work with her to find another solution. Either way, this question, and the conversations it sparks, can give you valuable insight regarding how to improve your company’s operations, facilities, and culture. It can also show you how to best develop and support individual team members.

*“I noticed what you did.” Every day, your employees do a lot of “little” things that keep your company running smoothly and customers coming back: Refilling the copier with paper when it’s empty. Smiling at customers after each transaction. Double-checking reports for errors before sending them on. And so forth. Unfortunately, in many organizations, these everyday actions are taken for granted, which (understandably) has a negative effect on employee morale. Let your employees know that you notice and value the mundane parts of their jobs by “catching” as many of them as possible in a good act, and pointing out exactly what it is about their behavior that you appreciate.

*“Thank you.” Yes, your employees may crave recognition for doing the mundane parts of their jobs, but that doesn’t mean that they won’t also appreciate a heartfelt “thank you” for bigger accomplishments. Whether it’s “Thanks for staying late last night,” “Thanks for being so patient with Mrs. Smith—I know she can be a difficult customer,” “Thank you for making our first-quarter marketing campaign a success,” or something else, your people will treasure your appreciation more than you realize. And don’t just praise your employees in private—recognize them in public, too. Talk about their accomplishments in front of the whole team, recognize them in company newsletters, and even call their families to brag on them!

*“What would you like to do here?” Sure, you originally hired each of your employees to do specific jobs. But over time, your company has grown and changed—and so have your people. Periodically (perhaps at annual performance reviews) ask what they’d like to be doing. You might be surprised to learn, for instance, that your administrative assistant would like to be included in the next marketing campaign design team. You might be even more (pleasantly!) surprised to find that her social media engagement ideas yield impressive results. No, you won’t always be able to accommodate every employee’s preferences. But whenever possible, keep job descriptions within your company fluid and allow your people to have a say in matching their skills to the company’s needs. This is one of the best ways I know to build loyalty and encourage your employees to really take ownership of their jobs.

*“I have bad news.” Your instinct might be to play down negative developments, or even keep them to yourself entirely. Nobody wants to be the person who says, “We’re going to have to eliminate some positions over the next six months,” for instance. Nevertheless, your employees deserve to hear the truth from you as soon as possible. They aren’t stupid and will be able to tell when something is “up” even if you don’t acknowledge it. By refusing to share bad news, you’ll only increase paranoia and anxiousness—neither of which are good for engagement or productivity. But when you treat your people like responsible adults by being honest and open, they will appreciate your transparency…and often, you’ll find that they’re willing to voluntarily double their efforts to help you turn the tide.

*“Here’s how our company works and where we stand.” When you make a point of showing everyone how your business “works” and how their specific job descriptions fit into the overall “machinery,” you’ll find that us-versus-them thinking tends to decline, and that profit-minded solutions begin to proliferate. At Autopart International, one of the best management decisions I ever made was showing my employees “the numbers” on a regular basis. I made sure that everyone understood the relationship between their performance and the bottom line—and thus their own pay. Several employees told me that my transparency prompted them to think more carefully about how their own everyday choices and efforts affected the bigger picture.

*“You deserve a reward.” Simple things like gratitude, respect, and autonomy make people far more happy than, say, big salaries and corner offices. However, I won’t deny that more tangible rewards like bonuses, vacation time, prime parking spaces, benefits, and more have their place in raising employee engagement. When resources allow, look for ways to reward your employees for their hard work. Remember, nobody wants to work for a Scrooge! At Autopart International, I thanked employees with everything from sports tickets to door prize drawings to lavish company parties to vacations on Martha’s Vineyard. I found that when I treated my employees like royalty, they worked extra-hard to be the recipients of these perks…and they were much more resistant to moving when offers to work for “the other guys” occasionally came their way.

*“I know you can do it.” Of course you should try to hire employees who are confident and self-directed. But even the most self-assured individuals appreciate an explicit vote of confidence from their leaders! Constantly challenge your people and push them to improve while reassuring them that you believe in them. At Autopart International, I told my employees that I believed in their ability to help our company grow—so much so that I wanted to introduce the concept of performance-based pay with no cap. I found that when a leader is willing to bet large amounts of money on employees’ potential achievements, those employees will work harder for you—and for themselves!—than you ever thought possible. With this strategy, everyone wins.

*“This task is in your hands—I’m stepping back.” Most micromanaging leaders don’t set out to annoy or smother their employees. The problem is, they care—a lot!—and want to make sure everything is done just so. But excessive hovering can give employees the impression that you don’t trust them or have faith in them—a belief that actively undermines engagement. So once you’ve delegated a task, step back and let your employees do what you’ve asked of them. Yes, I know that can be easier said than done. If you have to, lock yourself in your office or go refill your coffee cup to keep yourself from hovering! It may also help to remind yourself that you hired each of your employees for a reason, that you have faith in their potential, and that if they do need help, they know where to find you.

Remember, business is always personal. Specifically, it’s about reaching and motivating each of your employees on a personal level so that they care about contributing to your organization’s ultimate success. This spring, which phrases will you be adding to your at-work vocabulary?

 

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How to Boost Employee Engagement: Part 2

Unless you’ve been living under a cultural rock, you’ve seen the popular 1999 film Office Space. And if you’re like millions of Americans, you know all too well what the film’s characters mean when they refer to “a case of The Mondays”: low-grade dread, sluggishness, a lack of motivation, and an overall sense of disengagement when it comes to your job. These feelings inspire workers to do only the bare minimum necessary to avoid being fired, and they can easily bleed beyond the first day of the workweek.

As a leader, you don’t need to be told just what a negative effect this “ailment” can have on your company’s culture, bottom line, and employee turnover. What you do need are real-world tactics to help banish The Mondays from your organization.

In my last blog post, I shared my belief that the “cure” for The Mondays is actually pretty simple: To create more workplace happiness, motivation, and productivity, you need to show your people more gratitude, individual recognition, and (yes!) love. Believe it or not, these things make employees happier in their day-to-day work lives than huge salaries and corner offices!

I’ve already shared three tactics to help you cultivate happy, engaged employees:

  • Catch people doing things right.
  • Praise employees publicly as often as possible.
  • Handle mistakes with care.

Here are five more tactics to add to that list:

Don’t be the sole decision maker. Maybe you’ve never put much emphasis on the thoughts and opinions of your employees. After all, you pay them a fair wage to come to work each day and perform specific tasks. As a leader, it’s your job to decide what those tasks should be and how they should be carried out, right? Well, yes—strictly speaking. However, this unilateral approach to leading your team sends the impression that you’re superior (even if that’s not your intent) and also contributes to disengagement.

You see, employees who are told what to do feel like numbers or cogs in a machine. To unlock buy-in and achievement, make your employees feel like valued partners by seeking out their opinions, ideas, and preferences. They’ll be much more invested in your organization’s success because they had an active part in creating it. And here’s some good news that may surprise you: Your employees probably won’t care as much as you think they will if their suggestion doesn’t become reality. Mostly, they just want to know that their voice was heard by the people in charge.

Help your employees grow. As a leader, there’s a lot you have to deal with on a daily basis: Meeting quotas. Making sure procedures are followed. Keeping up with advances in your field. Learning and disseminating company policy. The list goes on. But no matter how full of “stuff” your plate is, don’t forget that a crucial part of leadership is developing your people.

Ultimately, the success or failure of your business depends on the people who show up each day to do the work, so place a strong emphasis on developing them. Give each member of your team progressively more autonomy, authority, and responsibility when they show they can handle it. When they feel challenged and know that their talents are being utilized, your employees will be more engaged. And whatever you do, avoid micromanaging, which can give employees the impression that you don’t have faith in them. If you have to, lock yourself in your office or go for a walk to keep yourself from hovering!

Remember that business is personal. Your employees will be more loyal and more motivated if they feel valued as individuals, not just as job descriptions. So get to know each team member on an individual basis and incorporate that knowledge into your regular interactions. For instance, if you know that John in Accounting has a daughter who’s applying to college, ask him which schools she’s considering. Or if Susanna in HR just came back from vacation, ask to see a few pictures.

Actually, showing genuine interest and caring is the greatest motivator I know. When you dare to “get personal,” your employees’ desire to please you will skyrocket. That’s why, when I was leading Autopart International, I took advantage of every opportunity I could think of to let my people know I was thinking about them. I recommended books I thought they might enjoy. I sent motivational quotes to employees who might appreciate them. I attended all weddings, funerals, bar mitzvahs, and graduations I was invited to. And guess what? Not only did I boost employee engagement…I also formed a lot of meaningful relationships that continue to this day.

Make it a family affair. Whenever possible, engage your employees’ families in a positive way. In addition to holding contests with family prizes and inviting loved ones to company celebrations, make sure that your team members’ families know how much they’re appreciated by your company. Having a leader validate all the hours each employee spends at work will be remembered far longer than a bonus (really!). Plus, when spouses and kids know what Mom or Dad does at work and are “on board” with it, your employee’s performance will be buoyed by support from the ones he or she loves the most.

For example, if an employee at Autopart International did something really tremendous, I would call his home, generally trying to get the answering machine and not a person. Then I’d leave a voicemail like this one:

Hi, (name of spouse and kids), this is Todd Patkin from Autopart International where your husband and dad works. I just want to tell you that he is incredible! He just broke our Nashua, New Hampshire, store’s all-time sales record. Guys, that is tremendous! So, please, kids, do me a favor. When your dad comes home tonight, everyone run up and give him a huge hug and tell him how proud you are of him and how great he is. And, (name of spouse), I hope you will give him a wonderful kiss to make sure he knows how much you love him and how much he is appreciated for all he’s doing for our company. Thanks, guys.

Years later, many employees whose families received these phone calls told me that although they didn’t remember how much their bonus checks were for that year, that extra-special homecoming was still clearly etched in their memories. And you know what? Leaving that message cost me next to nothing.

Re-recruit your best people. Since the buck stops with you, it can be tempting to focus the bulk of your help and encouragement on your lower performers. If I can help Ted and Tina boost their numbers, the thinking goes, this entire department will be better off. Plus, I just don’t want to explain their dismal performance to my boss. While it is your duty to help your weak links move up in (or out of) your organization, your efforts are actually best spent with your top people. Just think of how much more impressive their already-great work could be with some more encouragement and guidance. Also, think of how far back your team would slide if these MVPs decided to hand in their notice and work for the competition.

You should go as all-out in “re-recruiting” your top people as you would in attracting new talent. At Autopart International, I regularly thanked my top performers and gave them tickets to concerts and sporting events, gift certificates to restaurants, etc. in order to show the depth of my appreciation. And considering what it would have cost in turnover to attract and train suitable replacements, well, I never considered those expenses to be anything other than money well spent.

If there is one thing I would like to tell all leaders at all levels and in all industries, it’s that you have nothing to lose and everything to gain—including an improved bottom line—by making your organization as happy a place to work as possible. While a lack of employee engagement is certainly a costly problem, its solution doesn’t have to be.

How to Boost Employee Engagement: Part 1

We all know that employee engagement matters. Yet again and again, studies point to a pervasive lack of it (for instance, a recent Gallup report indicates that only 13 percent of employees worldwide are engaged), as well as the incredible costs of this problem. No one can deny that disengaged employees are less productive, less innovative, less collaborative…less everything that leads to successful organizations. Yet, despite all the handwringing, no one seems to know what to do about it.

That’s not particularly surprising. After all, it’s not like companies have the money to spend on lavish perks or formal “engagement” initiatives these days, nor do busy leaders have the time to obsess over such matters. Everyone’s just trying to survive.

Well, here’s some good news. I know for a fact that true employee engagement needn’t be expensive or difficult to implement. Engagement is really just another word for on-the-job happiness…and we intuitively know that happiness is connected to the simple things in life. So why not apply that principle to the workplace?

I first tested this theory out when I was leading (along with my father and brother) Autopart International. (It was sold to Advance Auto Parts in 2005.) I knew that the key to our company’s growth and success was to have motivated, fulfilled, and inspired employees. I wanted everyone who worked for us to have great attitudes about their jobs. And after testing out a few “motivation plans,” I realized that—believe it or not—simple things like gratitude, respect, and autonomy make people far more happy day-to-day than big salaries and corner offices. Best of all, these things are free and usually easy to provide.

If you’re wondering what the catch is, it’s that you might have to put some work into changing the leadership habits that might be keeping your employees beaten down and resentful. But doing that work is worth it. It’s the cornerstone of a cultural change that will naturally and organically lead to better employee engagement.

Here are three employee engagement strategies to help you get started. In my next blog post, I’ll describe five more.

Catch people doing things right. Everyone knows how embarrassing and stressful it is when the boss catches you doing something wrong. And for most employees, those negative feelings can linger (and impact performance) for hours, days, or longer. That’s why, if you don’t want your team to dread your presence in their workspace, you need to start each day with the intention of catching as many people as possible doing well.

People love to hear positive feedback about themselves, and in most cases, they’ll be willing to work a lot harder to keep the compliments coming. That’s because praise, especially when it comes from an authority figure, is incredibly fulfilling. (And sadly, it’s also rare.) Phrases like, “Bob, I’ve noticed that you always double-check your reports for errors, and I want to thank you for your commitment to quality,” or, “Sue, you always take such care to keep the file room neat. Thank you so much!” take about five seconds to say, but they can pay long-lasting dividends for your company.

Praise them publicly (and then praise them some more). Even if they brush off praise or downplay their achievements, everybody loves to be recognized and complimented in front of their peers. So don’t stop with a “mere” compliment when you catch an employee doing something right—tell the rest of the team, too! Whether correctly or incorrectly, many employees feel that their leaders take them for granted and point out only their mistakes in front of the group, so make it your daily mission to prove that perception wrong.

When I was at Autopart International and I saw that one of my people did something noteworthy, I made sure that everyone else knew about it by emailing the story to the entire chain. I could literally see the glow on the highlighted employee’s face for weeks, and I also noticed that many of the other team members began to work even harder in order to earn a write-up themselves. Other successful recognition strategies included writing thank-you notes to my employees and publishing a company-wide monthly newsletter highlighting our “stars.” During our best months, it might include everyone from upper management to drivers to floor and road salespeople, and was often over 30 pages long!

Handle mistakes with care. In business, mistakes are going to happen. You don’t have a choice about that. What you can choose is how you as a leader handle them—and by extension, what kind of impact they have on your company. Sure, lambasting an employee who has dropped the ball may make you feel better in the short term, but it’ll negatively impact that employee’s self-confidence, relationship with you, and feelings for your company for much longer.

Don’t get me wrong: You shouldn’t take mistakes, especially those involving negligence, incompetence, or dishonesty, lightly. But when your employees have made an honest mistake, try to be as understanding with them as you would be with your own family members. Take a deep breath and remind yourself that the employee feels very bad already, and that yelling or lecturing won’t change the past. Instead, focus on figuring out what went wrong and how to keep it from happening again. Did the employee (or the company as a whole) learn something? Should a process or procedure be tweaked going forward to reduce the chances of something similar reoccurring?

Also, never forget that mistakes are an essential part of growth. The innovation and creativity it takes to grow a business will be accompanied by setbacks and slip-ups. You don’t want to create an environment where people don’t take potentially productive risks because they’re afraid you’ll get mad if they screw up.

Be sure to check back for my next blog post, in which I’ll share five more employee engagement strategies that really work—and that won’t blow your budget.

The Resolution Project

Ninety-two percent of the time, we don’t end up keeping our New Year’s resolutions. That’s a shame—not just because we don’t experience the outcomes we’ve dreamed about (e.g., losing weight or socking away a certain amount of money) but because we also deny ourselves a lot of happiness on the way to achieving them.

Yes, you read that right. I understand for most people, doing things like slaving away in the gym, cutting calories, and curtailing “fun” spending might not seem like a recipe for joy. But according to multiple experts, working toward a goal does boost your happiness. Here’s what Sonja Lyubomirsky, Ph.D., of the University of California-Riverside has to say: “People who strive for something personally significant, whether it’s learning a new craft, changing careers, or raising moral children, are far happier than those who don’t have strong dreams or aspirations. Find a happy person, and you will find a project.”

Find a happy person, and you will find a project. I tend to agree. Throughout my life, I’ve noticed that projects, whether they’re for work, part of a hobby, or (yes!) even a New Year’s resolution, give you purpose and structure. They keep you from sitting around twiddling your thumbs, which inevitably leads to discontent. And when you accomplish milestones on the way to finishing your project (not to mention crossing the big finish line), your self-esteem and sense of accomplishment grow. And those things are all big contributors to an overall sense of contentment.

That being the case, here are some of my tips to help you stay on track and keep your 2014 resolutions:

Stick to one meaningful resolution. First of all, don’t overcommit. If you divide your attention and energy between multiple goals, you decrease the chances that you’ll follow through on any one of them. Even if there are several things you’d like to accomplish in 2014, I encourage you to narrow down the list (especially if your past resolution track record isn’t so good!). Identify one thing that means a lot to you, then devote your time and energy to accomplishing it.

Sit down now and plan out how you’re going to get there. Big accomplishments don’t just happen—they take thought, planning, and commitment. And most of the time, they’re built on a series of smaller, consecutive achievements. So figure out what baby steps you’ll have to take and which milestones you’ll have to hit before the clock starts ticking on January 1st. Write them down. If you can see exactly where you need to go, you’ll be less likely to stall out or make a wrong turn.

Schedule dates for your milestones. If something is written down on your calendar, it’s more likely to happen. (Face it: Saying, “I’ll get around to it one of these days” isn’t exactly a reliable strategy.) For example, you might say, “By March, I’d like to have lost five pounds,” or, “By May, I’ll have turned in my application for that online master’s program I’ve been eyeing.” These deadlines aren’t meant to be set in stone; they’re just guidelines to keep you on track and prevent you from procrastinating for months at a time!

Expect to slip up… Here’s the truth: Nobody’s perfect. Not me, not you, not anyone. I can tell you that during every project I’ve ever successfully pursued, I’ve still made mistakes, dropped some balls, and backslidden. I’m not saying this to discourage you, but to assure you that when the same thing happens during your resolution project, you haven’t failed outright!

…but don’t let those slip-ups derail you. Remember, tomorrow’s a new day and a new chance. You may have fallen off the wagon on Tuesday, but you can climb back onto it on Wednesday, or Thursday, or even next Friday. Whenever you slip up, spend a little time refamiliarizing yourself with your goal and refocusing on why it’s important. Always remember: Quitting or continuing is your choice.

Reward yourself for small and large victories. Yes, you’ll derive satisfaction from the work of progressing toward your goal, but that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate small victories along the way! Every time you lose five pounds, or save another hundred dollars, or pass any milestone, reward yourself. Even if it’s just a cup of your favorite tea or a night at the movies, acknowledging your progress will give you the fuel to keep going.

Build a support team. It’s hard to sustain any important work for a year without external support. Tell your friends and family members what you’re doing and ask for their understanding, help, and encouragement. And if you know anyone with the same goal as you, think about becoming accountability partners. If you know your friend is waiting for you at the gym, for instance, you’ll think twice about skipping your workout.

Take your project’s “temperature” each month. On a monthly basis, it’s a good idea to reexamine your resolution. Make sure this is still something that you want to do and that it’s taking you to a place you still want to go. The truth is, people and circumstances change. It’s completely possible that what made sense on January 1st no longer honors who you are on September 19th! Remember, this is a project that’s supposed to make you happier, not crazier and more stressed. There’s no shame in changing course mid-year if it’s done for your well-being.

Here’s to a productive, happy 2014!

Curing the End-of-Summer Blues

In most areas of the country, the school year will start soon. The red, white, and blue celebrations of the Fourth of July are over a month behind us. Most swimming pools close on Labor Day. What’s my point? Simply this: While the calendar says that summer lasts through September 21st, for all practical intents and purposes, it’s already more than halfway over.

At this point in the season, many people start feeling small flutterings of anxiety. They’re dismayed when they anticipate darker days and colder temperatures. They dread the quickened pace that usually accompanies autumn. (Goodbye, vacations and lazy summer days!) And the thought of the fast-approaching back-to-school hullabaloo is enough to make most parents want to lock themselves in a closet.

I certainly understand the bittersweet feelings that accompany the last weeks of summer, but what a shame it is that we allow anxiety and dread to suck the enjoyment out of this time of year! Maybe one of these scenarios sounds familiar:

  • You obsessively count the number of weekends left until Labor Day. “Only four more relaxing Saturdays spent basking by the pool!”
  • When you’re not making a mental list of new school clothes and supplies you’ll need to buy for your kids (and tallying up how much all of it will cost), you worry about how hectic your family’s schedule will be once school, soccer practice, karate, Girl Scouts, and piano lessons start up once more.
  • Whenever you look at a calendar, you bemoan the fact that you won’t have another vacation until Thanksgiving.

One of the most important things I’ve learned in my quest to find happiness is the importance of living in the present, and I think that’s especially important to remind ourselves of as we head further into August. I urge you to make the choice to engage fully with each day and get the most out of what remains of summer 2013. Here are some suggestions:

  • Instead of allowing everyone to flop in front of the TV on the weekends, round up the kids and go for a hike.
  • Focus on how nice the warm sun and cool water feel on your skin the next time you’re at the pool.
  • Invite the neighbors over and fire up the grill.
  • After the kids are in bed, take a few glasses of wine out on the porch and watch the stars come out with your spouse.
  • Grab some extra change the next time you hear an ice cream truck coming down your street and indulge in a sweet treat.
  • Instead of rushing through the grocery store, plan ahead and spend a Saturday morning at a local farmer’s market with your family.

You get my drift! The point is to enjoy the moment and savor all of the good things that summer still has to offer, instead of spending your time ruminating on what you aren’t looking forward to this fall.

In a very important way, spending the last few weeks of summer in a state of dread is representative of how many of us live our lives. We miss out on so many potentially happy moments and ignore so many blessings because we’re constantly focused on negative aspects of the future. If you recognize this tendency in yourself, I encourage you to read my blog post on the importance of living in the present from December 2011. In it, I talk about this topic in a little more detail and offer some advice to help you stop worrying about the future and ruminating on the past.

For now, here’s a quick and easy tactic you can use as summer draws to a close…and throughout the year: Whenever you find yourself dreading something that’s going to happen, pause a moment and identify one thing in the here and now for which you’re thankful. Tapping into the power of gratitude will refocus your attention and brighten your mood.

Here’s to a wonderful end to the summer!

 

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Summer Goal: Happy Kids (and How to Instill the Happy Habit)

One of the best things about summer is the fact that most of us get to spend more time with our kids. They’re home from school for a few months, and while our time off doesn’t generally mirror theirs, we adults still tend to take more vacation time during these lazy, hazy, crazy days than we do at other times throughout the year.

That being the case, this is the perfect time to teach your children some important life lessons. Specifically, I’m referring to lessons about happiness. If you’re familiar with my message, you already know that I believe happiness and success are not the same thing, and that our society tends to prioritize achievement over things like contentment, balance, and well-being. All too often, this state of affairs causes us to become overstressed, overscheduled, and overwhelmed—a lifestyle that doesn’t really leave very much room for “happy.”

The good news is, semi-constant stress and dissatisfaction aren’t inevitable. In fact, the root of much of our unhappiness can be traced back to our childhoods—which means that as a parent, you’re faced with a very important responsibility. More than sending your kids to a deluxe sleepaway camp or supervising their summer reading, the absolute best thing you can do for your children this season is to instill habits that will cultivate lifelong happiness.

Now, don’t panic. I’m not saying that you need to forgo pool trips and ice cream runs for lectures on the power of positive thinking—far from it! I’m simply suggesting that you take advantage of summer’s slower pace (and the increased amount of family time that goes with it) to help your kids develop healthy habits that will contribute to their happiness now and throughout the year. Here are eight suggestions to help you get started:

*Show your kids what happiness looks like. Kids do what they see us doing, not what we tell them to do. If you live a frenetic, stressful, and unhappy life, chances are good that your kids will grow up to do the same. When it comes to instilling happiness habits, the most important thing you can do is model the behaviors and attitudes you want them to adopt. So if you feel that your own priorities are out of whack, that your coping mechanisms are unhealthy, or that your outlook could use improving, do what you need to do in order to make the necessary adjustments. (Viewing my Twelve Weeks to Living a Happier Life program at www.toddpatkin.com or reading some of my previous blog posts will give you some good tactics to begin with!) Be sure you’re modeling all of the behaviors I’m about to describe. Remember, you’re not being selfish in the least—you’re guaranteeing a brighter future for yourself and your kids…and their kids after them.

*Teach your kids to love themselves. Despite what you may tell yourself as you tuck your children in at night, the love you feel for them—as boundless and unconditional as it might be—won’t be enough to sustain them throughout their lifetimes. It’s crucial that you teach them from a very early age to love themselves as well. The confidence that comes from loving yourself helps to guard against everything from feelings of inadequacy to living to please others to bullying, all of which can lead to more serious problems like depression. Overall, always be your kids’ biggest cheerleaders. Teach them to focus on all of the unique, positive aspects of themselves instead of dwelling on what they can improve and what they’ve done wrong. And always, always let them know they are loved unconditionally. So many children believe that they are only as good as their grades, their ability to entertain others, or who their friends are. Teaching them that they have intrinsic value starts at home with you.

*Help them to let go of the obsession with perfectionism. It goes without saying that parents don’t set out to harm their children when they push them to succeed—it’s natural to want your child to realize his full potential and take advantage of every opportunity. But the truth is that parents’ high expectations put the most pressure of all on their children, and many kids—especially those whose personalities predispose them to it—get the (incorrect) idea that anything short of perfection is failure. Always think about how your expectations and reactions might affect your child. Releasing him from the grip of perfectionism has to start with you—it won’t happen on its own. Tell him on a regular basis that you love him—not his grades or his sports trophies, but him. Help him to believe that he is adequate and successful no matter what. It’s important to realize that when young people go to college at age 18 (often their first extended time away from home), an unattainable compulsion to be perfect is extremely dangerous, and can lead to serious anxiety, depression, and other mental health issues. Again, do everything you can now to make sure your children enter the adult world with a healthy perspective on success and achievements.

*Teach your kids to play to their strengths. It’s no secret that we are raising our children in a very competitive world. Many kids—and their parents—feel a compulsion to be good at everything. As a parent, don’t support this notion. Instead, tell your child that everyone is good at some things and not so good at others—it’s what makes us human! Also, help your child to identify what her strengths and talents are and encourage her to pursue those things, rather than activities that make her feel less-than-great. Summer, with its increased amount of free time, is a great time to do this!

*Help your kids develop the power of perspective. Kids live in a small world where even the “little stuff” is a huge deal. (Case in point: Mom, I didn’t get to play on the same kickball team as Jimmy today at day camp!) And as you know from experience, the problems you encounter in elementary school don’t compare to the ones you encounter in high school…which don’t even begin to compare to the ones you face as an adult. That’s why one of the best things you can do to instill the happiness habit in your kids is to help them to develop perspective. From now on, when your child is faced with a problem or disappointment, sit down with him and make a list of all of the things he is good at—for instance, talented soccer player, wonderful big brother, great artist—and then point out how one mistake is a drop in the bucket amidst all of his other successes. Keep the list handy to pull out as a reminder in the future! Remember, when your child is able to accept failure, move forward, and keep a positive outlook, then he will have developed a crucial skill for his adult life.

*Raise your kids to be helpers. As adults, we know how great it can feel when we give back to others. Helping another person—whether it’s through service, teaching, or donating your resources—connects you to the rest of humanity in a powerful way. It also cultivates qualities like selflessness, empathy, and generosity, which are crucial building blocks when it comes to creating healthy, happy kids who grow into fulfilled, balanced adults. So sit down and talk with your kids about what it means to give back and why it’s important and discuss all the ways to do it. Make sure they understand that giving back doesn’t just mean donating money and that generosity is not limited to giving away things you no longer want. Then, make a list of projects that your kids are interested in participating in. Maybe they’d like to help out with a food drive or a bake sale, or perhaps they’d rather volunteer at a local animal shelter or nursing home. Again, because of the relatively large amount of free time your kids have, summer is a perfect time for these activities. Have conversations with them throughout the process, helping them to tap into how philanthropy makes them feel and who they’re helping.

*Give your kids the gift of gratitude. An attitude of gratitude might be a clichéd concept, but I know from experience that having one can change the way you look at and interact with the world. When you realize on a daily basis how fortunate you are—from being born in this country to having food on your table to having a family who loves you—you’ll develop perspective and compassion. You’ll have stronger, more genuine relationships, and you’ll look at the world with a healthy perspective instead of believing it revolves around you. That’s true for kids as well as adults! There are so many things you can do to instill gratitude in your kids. Verbally identifying and naming your blessings as a family is one, and making thank-you card writing a “rule” after birthdays and holidays is another. Another more subtle method is to deny your kids every once in a while. Of course I’m not advocating compromising their well-being, but the truth is, they don’t need every toy they ask for or ice cream for dessert every night. Not getting what they want, when they want it, every time, will help them to value what they do have, and it will protect against entitlement. Making your kids chip in to pay for what they want (whether it’s with money or by doing chores) will have the same effect.

*Make happiness a priority for your family. For many families, things like academics, sports, or other activities are in the top priority slots—and they may not be making any of you as happy as you once thought they did. Make no mistake: What you prioritize in your family unit will become the things your kids learn to prioritize too, well into adulthood. So sit down with your kids and talk about the things that make them happy. Try to get a feel for whether or not their daily and weekly activities fulfill them. Ask questions like, “Does playing softball make you feel good?” or, “What were you doing today when you felt the best?” If you hear surprising answers, talk about what your family could be doing differently. This isn’t a one-time exercise, either. Sitting down on a regular basis throughout the year to talk about how to reprioritize will make a happier family and will give your kids the valuable skill of evaluating their own lives and letting go of the things that aren’t working.

In a very real way, the attitudes and outlooks you instill in your children today will impact the rest of their lives—for good or ill. It’s not too late to make summer 2013 the season your family took a positive turn toward happiness. I promise, you won’t regret it!

 

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“Thank-Yous” Every Father Should Hear

On Sunday, June 16th—otherwise known as Father’s Day—dads across America will receive ties, tools, and other “toys” from their children. Sure, those gifts (as well as cards, visits, and family meals) are a great way to let Pops know that you love him and that you’re glad he’s part of your life. Like many of you, I am hoping to spend the day with my father and with my son, probably at the beach with Josh and maybe a nice meal later with my dad.

But this year, in addition to the “traditional” Father’s Day activities, I thought about what I could do to really honor my dad in a way he’ll remember and cherish. It didn’t take me very long to think of an answer: Tell Dad thank you and mean it.

I know that stereotypically speaking men aren’t supposed to be very “touchy-feely.” But I promise you—speaking as a father myself—when it comes to your kids, all of those rules go out the window. I cherish every “I love you,” “thanks,” and genuine smile I’ve ever gotten from my son, Josh. It’s incredibly heartwarming and fulfilling to hear directly from your child that he or she thinks you’ve done a good job as a parent.

Unfortunately, because our parents tend to be such constant presences in our lives, we often take them—and everything they’ve done for us—for granted. No, your dad probably wasn’t perfect (no parent is!), but chances are, he helped you become a capable, responsible, and fulfilled adult, and he always wanted the best for you. Father’s Day is the perfect time to think about all of the specific ways in which your dad has impacted your life. As I plan to do, I hope you’ll also spend some time reflecting on your relationship with your father and give him the gift of heartfelt thanks.

To help you get started, here are eleven “thank-yous” that might just make your dad’s Father’s Day perfect:

  • Thank you for almost always making time to come to my games, concerts, and awards ceremonies. I know you were under pressure and busy a lot of the time, so your priorities taught me that family and relationships are always more important than work and outside achievements.
  • Thank you for supporting me when I decided I’d rather be in the school band than play basketball. The fact that you clapped loudest at our concert let me know unequivocally that you love me for who I am—especially since you were the star point guard during your own high school days!
  • Thank you for making me help with yard work and home improvement projects on the weekends. I may not have enjoyed it at the time, but you taught me the value of hard work. Because of you, I take pride in a job well done, no matter how large or small!
  • Thank you for teaching me to ride a bike, and especially for encouraging me to get back up and try again when I fell. I learned that persistence and practice pay off, and that the results can be fantastic!
  • Thank you for coaching my YMCA sports teams. You showed me what good sportsmanship looks like and taught me why it’s important to shake hands after every game, even if we lost! In all aspects of my adult life, I know how to lose (and win!) with grace because of you, Dad. And even though I’ve aged out of Little League, I also exercise on a regular basis and try to stay physically fit.
  • Thank you for disciplining me and telling me why you were disappointed. I certainly didn’t enjoy being punished, but now I have a strong set of core values and a firm sense of right and wrong.
  • Thank you for teaching me how to drive and for remaining patient throughout the process—I know I wasn’t always the nicest student. Now I can merge, parallel park, and back like a pro. (But I’m still trying to beat your least-number-of-stops-on-the-way-to-the-beach record!)
  • Thank you for showing me that there’s a difference between being aggressively confrontational and being politely firm. Because of you I stick to my convictions and don’t let others take advantage of me while remaining respectful.
  • Thank you for making executive decisions on everything from where to eat dinner to when to leave the neighbors’ holiday party to which movie to watch on family night. These examples may seem insignificant, but over the years you taught me the value of knowing your mind and acting decisively. You saved me a lot of waffling, hemming, and hawing!
  • Thank you for always treating Mom with respect, patience, love, and sometimes a little mischievousness. You taught me how to treat someone you love and what a strong marriage looks like. Now I have a great relationship—and a lot of fun—with my own partner.

And for men specifically, I also suggest some version of this acknowledgment:

  • Thank you for teaching me the “essentials” like how to tie a tie, iron a crease into slacks, shine my shoes, and shave. While I might not put all of those skills to use every day, I always take pride in my appearance…and I think I do “clean up” nicely!

Whether you write your own personalized thank-yous in a card or share them with your dad in person, you can rest assured that this will be a Father’s Day he’ll remember forever. Here’s to you, Dad!

 

Making Mother’s Day Meaningful

In case you haven’t checked your calendar recently, Mother’s Day is coming up: Sunday, May 12th, to be exact. What are your plans? Are you going to send some flowers or a card, chat with your mom on the phone, and congratulate yourself on doing your duty as a child? Assuming you live close enough, will you stop by for a special visit?

If so, you’re in good company. Thousands of other Americans will be doing the same thing. And no, of course there’s nothing wrong with flowers, greeting cards, calls, or visits. They’ll all let your mother know that you appreciate her enough to put prior thought and energy into making her feel special.

But this year, I encourage you to go beyond a canned card. As you probably know if you’re familiar with my message, I believe that it is incredibly important to put sincere and consistent work into improving your closest relationships. Hopefully, your mother falls into that category! If, like me, you are blessed to still have your mom, don’t take her for granted. The fact is, the future isn’t guaranteed to us—we can count on only the present moment. So don’t lose any time—accompany that bouquet of flowers with something your mom will remember and cherish long after the blooms have faded.

Especially if you’re a parent yourself, think about the things you’d like to hear most from your own kids, now and in the future. Perhaps they might include: I have always known that I’m loved. You have given me the tools I need to build a fulfilling life. I know that you always did your best to be a good parent. Allow me to share some of the most important life lessons I have learned from you. And so on! Then, share these important truths with your mother—maybe even consider writing them down in that greeting card. Often, they’re the types of things we deeply feel but rarely verbalize.

Another meaningful way to spend Mother’s Day is to look through old photo albums with your mom (and with your dad too, if he’s still around), reliving good memories, telling funny stories, and explaining how your mother’s influence earlier in your life has shaped who you are today (and maybe even how you have decided to raise your own family). It’s not universally true, of course, but mothers often act as the glue that holds families together—they dry tears, they mediate when quarrels happen, they make sure that homework is done and that baths are taken, they motivate, encourage, advise, and so much more. What a blessing it would be for your mother to hear that you remember these things and that you see them as invaluable gifts she gave you growing up!

On the other hand, what if your relationship with your mother isn’t that smooth? What if the two of you aren’t very close? If you’re on speaking terms, I encourage you to take a step toward mending any rifts that may exist. No, you might not want to spend Mother’s Day rehashing old arguments or disagreements, but you can tell your mom that you’d like to work on these problems in the future because you love her and value your relationship.

And what if you don’t plan on talking to your mom on May 12th? Or any other day, for that matter? Sadly, I know that this is the case for too many people. Well, at Oneness University, which I recently attended in India, I learned that the most important relationships we have are with our parents. In fact, Oneness teaches that if you have a bad relationship with your mother in your heart, your life will always be filled with troubles. Thus, the best step you can take is to try to forgive her in your own mind, for your own well-being. Do your best to take a step forward and understand what your estranged mother might have been dealing with in her life when she treated you in a negative way—what might have caused her to behave the way she did.

At the end of the day, think about what you want to feel on Mother’s Day and determine how you can achieve that desired outcome. You may find yourself rejoicing in having the world’s greatest mother, or you may be at peace knowing that a potentially volatile situation is being handled in a way that honors your physical health and mental well-being. Remember, celebrating your mother is important—but the most important thing of all is being authentic and showing love to yourself first.

Getting Real with Your Spouse in 2013

In my last blog post, I offered some suggestions on how to get more real with yourself. To review, I believe that living a life of true authenticity is one of the keys to happiness; after all, if outside influences are determining who you are, what you do, and how you develop, you’ll feel confined, dissatisfied, and stressed, and it’s unlikely that you’ll truly love yourself for who you are right now.

Once you have begun to work on being more real with yourself and feel that you’re making progress, you can begin to inject more authenticity into the most important external relationship in your life: your marriage. I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “Happy wife, happy life.” It’s true—and if you happen to be a wife instead of a husband, so is the reverse! I promise, making authenticity a priority in your marriage will set the stage for the kind of happiness that will help both of you to create an absolutely unforgettable life together.

Here’s the catch: For most people, building an authentic marriage isn’t easy. It involves going the extra mile, having conversations you’d rather skip, and making changes in your behavior that don’t feel pleasant at the time. Think about it: You might choose to stick with the status quo and avoid the argument that would accompany telling your spouse that you feel taken for granted. Likewise, it can be easier to point a finger at your spouse rather than admit that you’re part of the overspending problem, too.

However, when you commit to working through these areas of your marriage, you’ll find that resolving future conflict becomes easier, you’ll feel less frustration and resentment, and you’ll enjoy being with your partner more. In an authentic marriage, both partners are free to be themselves while abiding by limits, boundaries, and guidelines that are designed to keep the relationship healthy and free of misunderstandings. Each person feels safe and comfortable opening up to and leaning on the other. That’s a gift that money can’t buy, because you can’t fully allow yourself to love and be loved if you aren’t willing to be vulnerable.

Ultimately, an authentic marriage is incredibly freeing, and will give your everyday happiness levels a huge boost. Here are some things to think about if you want to get real about your marriage in 2013:

* Stop burying your feelings. Have you ever bitten your tongue and allowed your spouse to do something that made you angry? Do you tell yourself that it’s worth feeling disappointed and let down if your partner is happy? If so, stop! Your feelings are legitimate, and stuffing them down not only robs you of happiness, it also denies your spouse (and you!) an opportunity to learn about each other and find a solution that makes your relationship better. Of course, I’m not saying that you should scream, shout, rant, rave, and accuse to your heart’s content. However, you shouldn’t be afraid to experience emotions and share your feelings in a gentle but firm way, even if it rocks the boat a little.

* Know what you want. And share it! Just as you shouldn’t bury your feelings, you also shouldn’t keep your desires and needs to yourself. Whether you’d rather go to the mountains instead of the beach on this year’s vacation, you want to redistribute the household chores, or you’d like your spouse to watch the kids so that you can take a break and spend an evening with your friends, be up front. Remember, if you are constantly denying yourself and sacrificing for the good of your family, your happiness—and thus your ability to be a good partner, parent, and friend—will suffer.

* Put away the finger. …the one you use to point with, that is. The blame game can be convenient and satisfying, but it’s rarely honest. Problems that crop up in marriages usually involve dropped balls at both ends of the court. For instance, here’s a common complaint: My spouse doesn’t listen to me. It’s easy to claim that the fault is all your partner’s; that she ignores you out of spite and doesn’t care enough about you to give you her full attention.

But is that the whole story? Do you approach her when she’s preoccupied or in the middle of another activity? Have you explained to her that you think there’s a problem? Do you give her your complete attention when she’s trying to talk? Usually, whatever the issue is, you’ll find that you aren’t completely blameless.

From now on, stop pointing fingers, which can lead to more frustration and conflict. Instead, accept the fact that you are responsible for your own satisfaction within your marriage. No, you may not be able to control everything your spouse does. But you can control how you react, how you handle problems, and what you are willing to tolerate. Rather than playing the blame game, commit to facing facts, taking responsibility, and resolving conflict.

* Let go of the need to always be right. Being honest with your spouse about how you feel and what you want is important. But it doesn’t always mean that you will—or should—get your way. After all, sometimes your spouse will be “right.” Maybe his plan for paying down your debt is more sustainable than yours. Perhaps the loving thing to do would be to order Chinese food, even though you don’t particularly like it, because your spouse had a terrible day at work.

Any relationship involving two people, especially marriage, must involve compromise and sometimes sacrifice in order to stand the test of time. So don’t think of yourself as a doormat, but do get in the habit of asking yourself, Would I rather be right or happy? Is my spouse making a better point than I am? Is this worth fighting about? Will pursuing this issue help our relationship or hurt it?

* Extend the same courtesy. As you strive to live more authentically within your marriage, allow your spouse to do the same. If she makes a good-faith effort to be honest with you, try to be understanding and kind, even if you don’t like what you’ve heard. Be willing to go the extra mile to make sure that her needs are being met. And don’t try to manipulate or force her into being the person you want her to be if the change in question isn’t one she feels good about making. The truth is, when both of you are allowed to be your most authentic selves while still prioritizing the health of your relationship together, you’ll have created a best-odds scenario for a happy and healthy marriage.

* If nothing else works, ask yourself THE question. Is my husband or wife the right person for me…or is he or she only a person to whom I happen to be married? First, let me say that if you are already married, I firmly believe that you should put your best efforts toward constantly improving your relationship. And if you are considering separation or divorce, I strongly suggest talking to a marriage counselor before making a final decision. That said, it’s also the case that sometimes, despite our intentions and desires, marriages don’t work. Maybe you and your spouse have different core values, want different things out of life, or simply aren’t compatible anymore. Or perhaps you have committed to a life of growth, positivity, and authenticity, and your partner refuses to support you and evolve with you.

Ultimately, more than almost anything else, your marriage can make or break the quality of your happiness. So if you genuinely believe that your spouse will not or cannot enhance your life, he or she may not be “right” for you.

Once you have clarified that you want to make your marriage work or that you want to move on, state your intention clearly to your spouse. Then act on your decision. If you have decided to stay married, realize that this is a turning point in the quality of your relationship. If things are unsatisfying or average right now, a commitment to authenticity can turn the tide. And if your marriage is already good, authenticity will make it absolutely fantastic.

Here’s one last piece of advice on how to make your marriage authentic: If you love your spouse (and I certainly hope you do!), verbalize that feeling every chance you get. I can tell you from experience that when your husband or wife knows how much he or she means to you, the obstacles you must face together will seem a lot less daunting. Plus, you’ll both feel more comfortable striving for authenticity because you will each know that you are valued and accepted, just the way you are.

Look at the Little Things…and Be Grateful

“Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”

—Robert Brault

With Thanksgiving right around the corner, there’s a lot of talk about thankfulness. It seems to me that most of us are in the habit of focusing our gratitude on grand statements made on this once-a-year holiday. You know what I mean: “I’m thankful for my family, my friends, the fact that I live in America, my health, etc.” And that’s great—we should be thankful for those things. But what about the days when there’s not a turkey in the oven and family gathered around the table? Do you take the time to be grateful in the everyday?

It’s easy to get caught up in the hectic pace of everyday life: bills to pay, deadlines to meet, carpools to drive, and homework to be done. It’s also easy to focus on the negative aspects of those everyday moments: The chores seem endless. The bills keep piling up. Your kids misbehave, the dog makes a mess, and you can never, ever seem to find time to do anything for yourself.

But believe it or not, there are actually plenty of things that we can (and should) be grateful for in these mundane moments. Think of it as thanks-living. After all, you have a house to clean, when others may have none. You have bills to pay for things that keep you comfortable, like your heat and electricity. You have children who are healthy and full of life and a fun-loving pet that puts a smile on everyone’s face. And so on.

When you begin to see and feel small doses of gratitude on a regular basis, you’ll notice that you’ll start to feel happier, and you’ll experience an amazing shift in perspective. You’ll notice the negatives less, and the positives more.

To make habitual gratitude a part of your everyday life, start by making a list each day. Carry a small notepad and pen with you and jot down the little things that you feel grateful for as they occur to you (or type them into a list on your smartphone!). The act of physically recording them will help you to stop and truly think about each moment of gratitude. (You might also share with others how thankful you are for the small things. It will not only remind you to stay on your toes, but it might also inspire them to start the same practice!)

As this becomes a habit, you’ll find that you no longer need an actual list to remind you to be grateful.

To get you started, I wanted to share a list of “little things” that I’ve been grateful for recently.

  • A hot cup of coffee
  • Clean sheets that just came out of the dryer on my bed
  • A phone call with an old friend
  • The smell of my favorite dinner cooking in the kitchen
  • A great talk with my son

Remember, your list doesn’t have to be profound. Sure, at times, it may be, depending on life and your circumstances. But that’s the beauty of this whole thing. Life isn’t always profound. It ebbs and flows. And when we can learn to be grateful for the things we have each day, no matter what circumstances life gives us at that particular moment, we will discover one of the keys to living a much happier life. This Thanksgiving I challenge you to make a promise to yourself and to your family for the year ahead: to be grateful on this day, certainly, and during all the ones that follow.

Lastly, remember that your kids develop their mindsets, attitudes, and habits based on yours. So realize that engaging in thanks-living isn’t just something that you’re doing for yourself—it’s a gift you’re giving to your children, and to their children after them.

I’d love for you to share your own “little things”—in other words, simple pleasures that bring you joy—in the comments section of this post!