HRPA CEO Louise Taylor Green recently met with psychologist, Dr. Cindy Wahler, to discuss some of the issues and challenges that people are facing at work and the context for HR professionals.

Drawing on some of the insights Dr. Wahler shares in her latest book, 20 Effective Habits for Mastery at Work, the discussion touched on topics including:

  • How to get ahead
  • Work/life balance
  • Workplace flexibility challenges/adjustments
  • Pre- and post-COVID: decision making and problem solving
  • Collaboration challenges and tactics
  • Advice for leaders re: back to workplace plans
  • Habit #1 – Collaborating and slowing down an organization
  • Habit #3 – Prioritizing competing demands – a fluid process
  • Negotiating priorities for shared services
  • Habit #7 – Pivoting through employment
  • Habit #12 – Self-promotion for HR Professionals

You can watch the full interview or read the summary below:


LOUISE: You have a broad range of global clients. They’re very, very diverse. Are there one or two key themes that are shared across those organizations about some of their most significant leadership challenges?

DR. CINDY WAHLER: Regardless of the industry sector, there are some universal challenges. So some of them include first off, how do employees at any level get ahead? They’ll say to me: I am working so hard, I’m meeting my deliverables and I have extraordinary performance, appraisals and feedback yet I seem to be in this role, in this niche and maybe typecast. How do I demonstrate that some of my skills can cross over to different areas in the organization to be able to showcase my diverse skillset?

The other challenge is something that is shared amongst all of us in terms of how do we separate our work lives from our personal lives and where do we put those boundaries? Although managers and leaders say, we very much respect your wellbeing, your mental health, your personal and family commitments, those messages are there, initiatives and support is there, but at the same time, employees are receiving messages, emails, and requests that might come in at any hour of the day. So it’s confusing to employees to understand, well, what is expected of me? And that’s stressful.

LOUISE: COVID times have really exacerbated that challenge because we’ve introduced workplace flexibility that for many of us didn’t exist the way that it does now, where we can almost design our ideal work environment or working schedule or calendar. But at the end of the day, employees still want to know am I expected to respond to a message I get from my boss at 7:30 in the evening? Or if my workday ends up being 7 a.m. to 3 p.m., am I expected to be online after that? And I think that much like we’re seeing in other jurisdictions, the right to shut off or the right to set out your boundaries around work, it’s too fluid right now. And employees are looking for that kind of clarity.

DR. CINDY WAHLER: Absolutely, they need to understand what is okay, in what realm can they have the flexibility and what is the window where they need to figure out how to communicate what their own availability is. And then to add to it, from a COVID point of view, there are many employees who are absolutely enjoying and looking forward to the hybrid model when we all return. Though, there is a percentage of the population who loved and enjoyed going into the office. And as companies reduce their real estate footprint and perhaps will never have employees going back full time that too is an adjustment. And how do we adapt to that when employees love to be in the office, whether it was social or they had personal family challenges that they needed to be away from so that they were in the office in a traditional kind of way? These are all challenges that HR professionals need to work with the business to try to understand and modify and adapt to different models.

LOUISE: When we think of the leadership challenges that we faced in workplaces prior to COVID-19 relative to the leadership challenges we have faced over the last 15 plus months, what’s unique about the “before times” issues versus now?

DR. CINDY WAHLER: There are a number of leaders that say that, although at the very beginning they enjoyed working from home and working remotely, they are missing the office. And for some leaders they’re finding that they’re not able to be as effective and as efficient. And the concern is their decision-making and problem solving ends up being overextended. So in the past pre-COVID, you can just pop your head in and say, hey Susan, what do you think of X? Hey Bob, what are your thoughts on this item? And now we have to either text or send an email or wait for a response. And so there’s a lag time. And in the era of being responsive and being immediate, this has actually created a stress point for both the leaders and their teams around expectations.

LOUISE: So as we’re looking ahead to some form of gradual, reopening of society, which we know will happen at some point. Leaders are going to need to change what they do and how they do it in order to reactivate positive thriving workplaces. What advice would you have for leaders now as they begin to plan for their organizations or their teams returning to the workplace? Whether that’s permanently to the workplace, hybrid or some other new operating model?

DR. CINDY WAHLER: For sure, so just like an employee when we have a new hire, there’s usually an onboarding program. That person gets a buddy to help them navigate the culture, the politics, resources, whatever it is they need. And I think that a model like that as we return, where there’s an onboarding program for helping employees reintegrate, they are still juggling, whether it’s elderly parents, whether it’s daycare, working from home. And so it’s a number of things that employees need to adapt to. They can’t just go back to work as of Monday, they have all these structure they put in place. And so I think that it needs to be a phased in and as well accommodative for each individual employee that might be different. So in essence to your question, leaders more than ever need to be actively listening with each and every employee because their needs are unique.

LOUISE: In your book, you’ve mapped out 20 habits for leaders., I wanted to get into a few that really stood out for me. Habit number one in your book, it’s all about collaborating. You talk about the importance of teams and this idea of expansion of good ideas by bringing new people in new ideas together to expand on opportunities or situations. And you also talk about collaboration in the context of the diversity of ideas. And you include a bit of a caution that sometimes collaborating too much or too extensively could actually slow you down and potentially paralyze you from doing what you need to do. And so we need to be clear about what collaboration means and maybe what it doesn’t mean. And you specifically say it doesn’t mean sort of unanimous viewpoint instead you really need to think about collaboration as a process. So how do we know if too much collaboration is underway or maybe said another way, how much collaboration will lead to the desired outcome we’re looking for?

DR. CINDY WAHLER: If you look at the premise towards collaboration, the idea is that you want to be inclusive for a number of reasons. You want to be inclusive because you want employees to feel and be engaged and feel valued and respected.

And we also want collaboration because if I come into the room and I say, Louise, I’ve got this phenomenally exciting idea, perhaps it is exciting. But if you give me feedback, you’re going to hopefully point out maybe some of the risks to that idea, or maybe how to position the thoughts that I have. And so you are right. It’s important to go around the table and get different viewpoints and perspectives. And then I think as a team and as a leader, you as a leader are the tiebreaker. So there’s a point where you need to insert your judgment. Even if you don’t have 100% everybody on board, do you have 80% and now we need to move forward. So that’s where collaboration then needs to have boundaries where there’s a call that’s being made, that you are weighing the risks and liabilities to the decision against the return on that decision and go forward. And it does mean that there will be some people in the room who may not be aligned, who may not be happy with that decision, but must go ahead because that’s what it means to be part of a team and the privilege of the leader that you’re working for.

LOUISE: I want to talk about habit three, prioritizing. And I think that, for many of us in normal times, we might struggle with juggling a lot of competing demands. I see in my own organization, it’s really intensified during COVID-19 and you say prioritization should be a fluid process where priorities are re-evaluated and shifted as conditions in the workplace change. So in departments like HR, IT, marketing, like sort of back office functions still where we’re all still serving other organizational priorities in addition to our own departmental initiatives. We seem to have many people to please and never really enough time or resources to deliver for everyone. In your consulting practice, do you see examples of where people have taken prioritization too far and become rigid instead of treating it like a flexible or dynamic process?

DR. CINDY WAHLER: Absolutely and so you’re right. Shared services like HR, IT, legal, et cetera. Yes, there are a lot of demands from line of business and are trying to as you say, please many, many audiences. In terms of prioritization, I always say that what you do need to do is go back and say, okay, so you had suggested three top priorities. Now what seems to be happening is that based on our strategic direction of our organization, based on our municipal election, based on economic factors, we need to revisit these priorities because you the business now are telling me there’s four other priorities. So, which is it? And if it’s impossible for me as the shared service to be effective in now seven that were once three, I need you to help me decide which ones because I won’t be able to deliver on all seven nor will I be able to please you and give you high quality work. So it is really incumbent upon the shared service to go back to the business to say, we need to revisit and renegotiate. And of course, there’s going to be pushback. There always is pushback. And so there is that back and forth to come up with the best solution because there is pressure on all of us to be able to distinguish, well, what is truly important? And if you need me to do this well, then it’s not possible for me to do all these things in the manner that I like to deliver. And the quality that you expect of yourself and of me.

LOUISE: Over the last year, HR professionals have had to pivot time and time again, to meet evolving business and people needs. And I’ve heard from so many of our own members at HRPA that the last year has been abundant with opportunity to learn new skills, to grow, to do new tasks. There’s been so much development for them through doing new things. And I’ve heard also from so many HR professionals that they’re burnt out or they’re on the edge of burnout and they are totally and completely depleted and exhausted and they are really rethinking their professional futures. What advice would you give to those people who know that their current work situation just isn’t the right fit for them anymore and that they may need to pivot as we embrace the world post-COVID?

DR. CINDY WAHLER: Whenever any of us reached that decision-making point or that conclusion at the beginning, it’s quite disconcerting and sometimes a little deflating because we’ve been passionate about our role. We’ve been as you say, given so much and contributed so much. And so it feels quite scary and frightening to think, oh, perhaps I’m no longer engaged. Perhaps I am burnt out and I do want a fundamental change. So one is that you are not alone. So as you suggest many have but the important thing is, is to understand that most of our skills are transferable. If you’re great at communicating and collaborating, partnering, teaming, then there might be a different swim lane for you where you can take those skills and flourish in a different role, different industry. Perhaps as an example, if you’re an HR professional, you might want to go into communications or you might want to work in a different area, event planning, whatever it might be where what has allowed you to be successful in the first phase of your career is going to be successful and set you up for success in the next phase. And it has to do with our orientation.

If you look at people who are linear thinkers and are more rigid. And one plus one equals two, in life it is more challenging to adapt because you expect the world to go in a straight line. For those individuals who recognize that life is unpredictable and that things come our way that we don’t expect and that you need to change to that. It’s easier for those people then to look at, what else can I do? And I would highly recommend that you individuals, it may be HR professionals or any sector start having lots and lots and lots of conversations not necessarily for networking per se, but as you feedback your fears, what can I do? Where do I go? Then the feedback you get helps stimulate your ideas and helps really flesh out your ideas around, well, you know what? I never thought of that, maybe I need to research that more or who would you suggest that I talk to in that area? And then you’re on a path of fact-finding and it evolves and you have a sense of control. So the idea is whenever we’re stressed or anxious, you have to ask yourself what aspect of my life can I control? I can’t necessarily control my workload or my work life, but I can control this now. I have a new project and that’s to look at where else I might take my career. And then you wake up every day with some homework related to that, which is uplifting.

LOUISE: I just love this idea that you’re talking about being deeply curious about your own possibilities and potential and being sort of vulnerable and open without perhaps revealing all your cards that you’re thinking about leaving or changing a job but more, you know, who do you trust and who can you go to openly to talk about what you want more of and what you’re good at and how they might be able to facilitate some insights or even people that you could talk to about what options might be available to you? But really pursuing it as a project and thinking with intensity and curiosity about what you want next? And what I think too is really quite fascinating in terms of the HR profession, is there are actually professions within the profession. And so you may be a generalist and maybe you want to become a specialist or maybe you’re a specialist in HR and you want to become a generalist. And so sometimes people jump to the conclusion. The only option for me is to leave my current employer or to find the same or a similar job somewhere else. And really what they need to do is really think about what it is as you described, what is it you really want out of work? And can you get it here or can you get it somewhere else? And what do you have control over?

DR. CINDY WAHLER: Absolutely, I remember once I had a client and his background was engineering. And he did extraordinarily well as an engineer, he was promoted every few years, his scope increased. And he got to a point though, where he was no longer fulfilled in doing this. So he went to his parents and he said, I think I’m actually going to leave this job and look for something else and figure out what else I want to do. And of course the reaction from his parents was, well, that’s a frightening thing. It sounds like you’re taking risks. Why would you do that when you’ve done so extraordinarily well and you’ve been rewarded? And in fact, he said, because this is no longer as fulfilling for me. And I need to take the time to have these conversations and look for where else my skillset lies. And I think it’s true. We don’t have only one skillset and one skew. You’re right, maybe as a HR professional, you did enjoy recruitment. But now maybe you want to go into succession planning or another area of HR and excel in that.

LOUISE: It’s true. And as a person who’s had the opportunity to move around in a lot of different industry sectors in different HR accountabilities, I know that there’s enormous diversity and it can be incredibly fulfilling because I’m a quite an action-oriented person. One of the things that I really loved inside the book is that at the end of each habit, you’ve mapped out action steps for learning with each one of the 20 habits. And habit 12 is all about self-promotion, something I think many of us find very difficult. So how could HR professionals build the confidence and the skill to self-promote effectively and appropriately?

DR. CINDY WAHLER: Great question. I’m smiling with you because on the self-promotion, most of us I think have grown up in a family environment where it’s important to be humble and to be self-effacing and not to raise your hand. That is a respectful thing to do, a community-oriented approach. I do think the rules of engagement for business are somewhat different. And so as an HR professional and any area that you’re in, basically that noisy people do get rewarded. And so you do need to have a voice. And so we’re always taught, well, it’s important to make sure we promote our team because it is a team effort and you as a leader, wouldn’t be successful without your team, which is very true. However, I think it’s important as an HR professional to make sure that you promote, communicate where you’ve been the architect of ideas. So this came from me and yes, I did help mobilize my team but here are my thoughts. And that you’re promoting that to decision-makers in your organization, who know the value that you bring and see that you’re not just tactical and transactional but as an HR professional, you have a strategic orientation. And to promote that because it is something that you are good at, that you’ve earned and that you should be self-assured with because you have to advocate on behalf of yourself. If you don’t, then how can we expect other people to do it? And so I think there’s a way to do it with finesse, a way to do it with what I call humble confidence. So you’re confident in a humble way, not being the smartest person in the room or the best person in the room, but certainly smart enough and best enough.

LOUISE: I think, sometimes there is just a personal hesitation to acknowledge our own achievement, but what you’re really advocating for is an evidence-based approach. This is what I did, this was my idea, this is how it was deployed. So that we remind ourselves of our own achievement but also ensure that there is an acknowledgement about the value that we’re really bringing.

DR. CINDY WAHLER: Absolutely and you’re right. You said it better than I, Louise. So if you use the data to support the accomplishments that you’ve had and then make sure you go forward to show those achievements, to show the effectiveness of what you do. And the idea too is that when we compare ourselves with others, it’s a losing proposition. So in terms of self-promotion, what we tend to do is think about somebody is faster, better, more attractive, more something. And you will always lose when we do that, because they’re better rather than saying, am I good enough? And this in fact is extraordinary or this is significant and that isn’t enough to own and take accountability and have others appreciate that.

LOUISE: I love that because what we need to be comparing ourselves to ourselves, our own aspirations, our own sense of self, but we’ll always feel as though we’re coming up short if comparing ourselves to others. So that’s a great insight. In fact, I think it’s the perfect note for us to end our chat today with some great advice to our HR professional community.

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