Author Archives: Todd Thorsgaard

Can you hear me?

Are you reacting differently to these quotes? Would it be different if they weren’t attached to the photos or attributed to a specific person?

This isn’t a new phenomenon but it seems to be getting worse. We are not very good at listening to people we perceive as different from ourselves. That makes it hard to build inclusive work teams, share diverse points of view, and leverage the strengths of everyone on your team.

The founders of Living Room Conversations want to help people actually listen to each other rather than debate and talk at each other. Recently a number of leaders at several of our campuses have used the Living Room conversation agreements and topic-specific conversation guides to tackle the tough topics of status, privilege and race with diverse groups of faculty and staff.

Conversation Agreements

  1. Be curious and open to learning
  2. Show respect and suspend judgement
  3. Look for common ground and appreciate differences
  4. Be authentic and welcome that from others
  5. Be purposeful and to the point
  6. Own and guide the conversation

The actual conversations become structured “deep listening sessions” that include an orientation to the process, intentional time-keeping and facilitation and a closing period. An example of the status and privilege guide can be found here – Conversation Guide.

I can attest to the almost magical listening and sharing that occurs during a living room conversation. People stop interrupting each other, they smile as they hear the stories others share, and they are surprised by how easy it is to share their own story with people who are actually listening to them.

When we asked participants after the conversations the majority responded that they had not changed their personal points of view but they now could see more common ground with their colleagues, despite their differences. Further, there was universal support for more dialogue.

Using a structure to help people actually listen to each other can provide a starting point for greater inclusion, in the workplace and beyond.

Todd Thorsgaard


Connections and inclusion

As an introvert I am not always comfortable making connections at work, even though people naturally listen to me and accept me. After all, as a white male I am a member of the dominant culture and I am automatically included. The same is not true for employees with a diverse background or from a non-dominant culture. They struggle to be included.

A recent article, Diversity and Authenticity, in the March-April 2018 Harvard Business Review highlights that “decades’ worth of studies have shown that similarity attracts – a phenomenon known as homophily.” The study focused on the reality that “disclosing elements of one’s personal life and forming social connections are easier within one’s own group than they are across a demographic boundary like racial background.” In other words, it is easier to hire a diverse team than it is to ensure that everyone feels included.

The authors suggest three strategies to break down the barriers to inclusion.

  1. Structure – Introduce structure and clarity to team events to facilitate shared and equal opportunities to talk to all team members. Define roles and reasons for activities and clarify the expectation of non-judgmental listening.
  2. Learning – Role model and facilitate a learning approach to dialogue rather than a statement-driven approach. Research indicates that genuine curiosity and open questions make it easier to share stories across differences and make an emotional connection.
  3. Mentorship – Utilize informal “buddies”, mentors and employee resource groups to facilitate relationship building for both new hires and employees from marginalized groups. These more experienced colleagues can help break down social barriers, provide background information, context and make introductions.

Leaders can build inclusion by helping team members make connections across their differences.

Todd Thorsgaard

Don’t touch the brakes!

I may have been driving a little too fast but the snow wasn’t coming down too hard. Then I hit the bridge section, lost traction and started sliding. I had made a mistake and was heading for a crash. Luckily my dad had taught me how to not overreact and what to do when sliding on ice. Don’t touch the brakes, steer into the slide and accelerate a little to maintain traction. My heart was racing but I straightened out and avoided a crash. As a leader, how you react to mistakes is also a crucial skill to learn.

As they say, mistakes will happen and your response to your own mistakes and the mistakes made by your team will either help build trust or slowly chip away at your integrity. It is easy to list what not to do – (Don’t touch these brakes):

  • Ignore
  • Blame
  • Point fingers
  • Deny
  • Deflect
  • Minimize
  • Rationalize
  • Overreact

More difficult is to steer into the mistake. Based on my own experience, and a few ideas from Kristen Beireis, a coach who specializes in trust-building, the following actions can help you avoid turning a mistake into a crash.

  1. Acknowledge it or admit it – as hard as it may be this is the starting point to correcting any mistake.
  2. Offer to fix or make good – it may cost you money or time or prestige but often a simple offer to honor or fix a mistake will go miles.
  3. Support your people and help them find a solution – resist searching for the cause immediately and support your people and encourage them to focus on first correcting the mistake. You can work together later to search for causes.
  4. Follow through – demonstrating commitment and follow-through is crucial after any mistake. People will accept an earnest correction but will be skeptical if they don’t see true follow-through.
  5. Learn from the mistake – adopt the mindset of a scientist and use the mistake as a learning opportunity to make an improvement or minimize the chance of a similar mistake.

It is human nature to slam on your brakes and make a mistake worse. Responding with intention can help you recover and demonstrate integrity.

Todd Thorsgaard



I’ve got a secret…..

Unless you have a birthday coming up, these are not words you want to hear. Especially at work from your boss. They strike fear and sow mistrust, yet, as leaders, you have information that you cannot share with your people – you have secrets! How do you balance the transparency needed to demonstrate integrity with the confidentiality your position requires?

Karen Seketa, a blogger that I follow, suggested that we think of it as being translucent not completely transparent. Leaders are “not sharing ALL information ALL of the time” but taking “an intentional approach to empowering your employees with the information they need in order to be successful.” When I consult with leaders they get hung up on what they can’t share and they overlook all they can share. Even in the most chaotic and tumultuous times you can share how decisions are being made, how you will keep them informed, how they can be involved and how they can share their concerns with you. People need and want clarity, honesty and how they can be involved. You can share that, even when you can’t share every detail or name or potential option being considered.

Yes, you may have a secret but that doesn’t mean you are hiding things from your people.

Todd Thorsgaard



A slippery slope to disaster

It had been a good morning of snowboarding out west. Each run I pushed the edge a little more, tried to go a little faster or carve a tighter turn. And, no falls! I was ready to risk a double black diamond run. It was just slightly steeper I told myself, I can get away with it. But no! I lost my edge and took a spectacular fall.   Luckily all I lost was a little snowboard cred with my buddies but when leaders push the edge of integrity they can get on a slippery ethical slope that leads to a much more damaging career crash.

You may have heard about the slippery slope of ethics but until 2015 it had not been closely studied or truly understood how it works. A study published in the Journal of Applied Psychology answered a few of those questions and can help leaders avoid falling down an ethical slope. The study also addressed how to create a culture that discourages ethical breeches. The key finding is that when small trivial behaviors that are slightly questionable are not noticed or called out over time there is a large increase in the likelihood that ethical people will commit larger violations in the future. This evidence demonstrates that getting away with seemingly minor acts like grabbing a few pens from the supply closet and bringing them home or extending a medical appointment to run an errand makes it easier for people to next add a few extra dollars on their meal expense report or fudge a few data points in their research. And if that isn’t noticed it can build to covering up safety issues, rigging a hiring processes, embezzlement or outright financial fraud. Crashing careers, reputations and institutions.

Personally leaders need to be aware that even they can be swept down an ethical slippery slope without realizing it if they work in a culture that doesn’t pay attention to trivial incidents. The study recommends establishing a personal vigilance on ethics that encompasses all issues, large and small. In addition, it reinforces the importance of leaders clearly defining misconduct and quickly addressing even trivial behaviors to ensure that people don’t set themselves up for a larger crash down the road. The authors describe this as developing a “prevention focus” by:

  • setting clear ethical standards
  • openly discussing and describing potential ethical dilemmas employees may face
  • role-modeling ethical behavior
  • responding quickly and openly to even minor violations – this doesn’t require draconian punishment but it does require notification and follow-through
  • reinforcing vigilance and respect for ethical behavior in all settings

Slippery slopes are exhilarating on my  snowboard but they can cause even the most ethical of leaders to crash and destroy their integrity without proper vigilance.

Todd Thorsgaard


How did you decide that!

You have gathered input, asked questions, mulled options and finally reached a tough decision and then you hear “How did you reach that decision!” And it is an accusation not a question. In fact it actually feels like a challenge to your integrity as a leader. Luckily a close examination will usually reveal not a lack of integrity but a lack of transparency on the decision-making process you used.

Writer John Cutler highlights this point in his article “Decision Making Transparency.”  People on your team want to know how you are making the decision and how they will be involved. It is crucial that you communicate this information with your team before, during and after decisions. Cutler recommends that you ask yourself the following:

  1. Who makes the actual decision?
  2. Who will be impacted by the decision?
  3. What criteria are being used to make the decision? Factors, budget, timing, scope, requirements, regulations, etc.?
  4. What are we attempting to maximize, minimize, improve, reduce, develop, or achieve?
  5. How will we involve others in the improvement of decision-making?

Answering these questions and sharing the information will help ensure that your decision-making actions are transparent and demonstrate integrity.

Todd Thorsgaard





Truly understand by hearing everything.

To truly understand others, leaders need to listen – not talk! That may sound easy but in the day-to-day crush of work and deadlines and priorities it is a challenge. Yet the payoff is huge. In fact, one study discovered that the strongest predictor of trust is a leaders ability to listen with empathy and respond based on what they hear.

Harvard Business Review suggests that leaders focus on three crucial “behavioral sets” to improve their listening.

  1. Actively recognizing ALL verbal and nonverbal cues. People speak with much more than the words they use and listening is different than just reading a transcript of their statement. We all have “misheard” or “misread” an email. Empathic listening involves paying attention to things like tone, emphasis, energy, excitement, reticence, body movement, gestures, and facial expressions. Seeking to understand both what is being said and what isn’t being said demonstrates true listening.
  2. Processing the message or tactical listening. Sharpen your skills and use techniques or tools to help you follow along with the speaker, remember what is being said, keep track of key points, identify areas of agreement/disagreement, and capture the overall message. This can be as simple as taking notes, using summary statements and minimizing distractions. It also involves giving up control of the conversation and focusing all attention on the other person.
  3. Assuring others that genuine listening has occurred and that conversations will continue.  Only the people on your team can accurately state if they feel listened to. Leaders need to use verbal and nonverbal actions to share the message that they are listening and want to continue listening. Ideas include verbal acknowledgements, clarifying questions, summary statements, check-in’s, paraphrasing and at times even restating a point being made. Your non-verbals are also being watched so eye contact, posture, facing each other, nodding along, and mirroring body language all reinforce your empathic listening.

Learning to listen builds trust and helps you say more with less talking.

Todd Thorsgaard