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Chris Murchison

Hello, Goodbye: Endings as Positive Opportunities

August 24, 2015


Investing in new employee orientation is a no-brainer for most organizations. A thoughtful beginning sets staff up for success. Positive orientation experiences help create a workplace where employees feel that they belong, where they can show up as a whole person and have a sense of focus and purpose in their work.

While most organizations invest time and resources in beginnings, not all companies make a similar investment in the human side of endings—and the results of that are easy to see. The traditional layoff process is largely a legal and transactional affair, full of practices that are well intentioned but often leave employees feeling startled, hurt and betrayed.

 Is it possible to have a positive layoff?

Like many organizations, we’ve invested in beginnings at HopeLab, helping employees get off to a good start, and we’ve also managed a number of layoffs and terminations. We’ve examined customary approaches to layoffs and tried a number of untraditional practices with the intention of creating a more human experience. Here are some insights and recommendations on how to facilitate goodbyes as positive experiences, even in challenging circumstances.

Transparency. Being laid off is often unexpected. Speak as honestly as you can about the reasons for the decision and acknowledge the impact on the employee.

Allow space. Notification meetings can often be short. Instead allow time and space for connection and conversation. Invite employees to express how they’re feeling, to emote and ask questions.

Presence. Despite what you imagine, you can never fully anticipate how an employee will respond to this news. Slow down, focus your attention on the employee, and be open and responsive to whatever shows up in the moment.

Honor your own emotions. Sometimes leaders have to lay off employees that are dear to them. This can bring up fear, anxiety or sadness. These feelings are human. Rather than tamp them down, express them. It shows that you too are human and builds trust and respect.

Offer Time. Allow time for employees to close out their work with integrity and in support of their legacy – consider allowing days or weeks even, not just a few hours. This is an invitation rather than an expectation. If an employee prefers to leave immediately, that should be a fine option with no judgment associated.

Stay connected. It’s easy for laid off employees to feel disconnected, pushed out or a failure. A layoff does not have to be the end of a relationship. Reach out, check in and see if there’s anything you or your team can do to be supportive. Create time for follow-up conversations. These actions send a strong message that people matter, whether they’re currently employed with you, or not.

Positive does not necessarily mean happy. A positive organization can be joyful and happy, but when we show up fully, warts and all, positive also means allowing the full range of our emotions to be present. No matter how hard you try to create a positive experience, an employee may still feel angry or negative after a layoff. This doesn’t mean, though, that you haven’t planted important seeds that might sprout later.

Be sensitive to the staff “left behind.” Don’t neglect the employees who remain. Layoffs can put them on high alert, wondering if they’re next in line. This energy can undermine morale and productivity. The same transparency, space, presence, and time afforded to laid-off employees should also be carved out for remaining employees.

Layoffs as an opportunity

Layoffs are a critical inflection point for everyone involved, a moment that’s remembered for a lifetime. Transitions out of an organization are an amazing opportunity to reinforce your values and culture, to support connection and humanness, and to foster a healthy sense of control in the face of adversity. A thoughtful and respectful ending can be a profound experience with lasting positive impact.

This blog is based on a talk given at the 2015 Positive Business Conference, hosted by the Ross School of Business School at the University of Michigan. This talk was also featured in an article in The Atlantic and on KCBS Radio in San Francisco.

Originally published on Huffington Post. 


Kevin Neilson

Confession: I Loved My Onboarding Experience

June 9, 2015


It’s been over a year and a half since I joined HopeLab, and I’m still wistfully thinking about my onboarding experience. Who does that? Well, apparently I do. It’s one of my idiosyncrasies, but we’ll get to those in a moment.

Typically the onboarding process for a new employee is an uninspired affair, filled with lectures, videos, and other transactional interactions. They can be impersonal and tedious. But onboarding doesn’t have to be that way.

I’d like to share some personal observations of my experience getting started at HopeLab in the hopes that an idea or a practice sticks with you as you onboard someone in the future. I’m utterly convinced that effective onboarding consists of highly repeatable practices that are easy, no or low cost, and can be transferred from one workplace to another, no matter what sector, industry, or business you’re in.

First contact. My onboarding experience at HopeLab actually started in the interview process, long before I accepted or had even been offered the job. Staff treated me with warmth, kindness, and engaging curiosity. They inquired about my interests and talents, my strengths and weaknesses, and my learning and working styles. Past successes and failures (perceived or real) were openly discussed in a spirit of empathy and understanding—and ultimately acceptance. The experience left an overwhelmingly positive impression that deeply influenced my expectations of the company and its organizational culture.

The call. In a simple yet meaningful gesture, the hiring manager called me to offer the job – not a recruiter or an HR business partner, but the actual hiring manager. He shared his enthusiasm for me as a candidate and then asked me to join the team, in a truly human-to-human moment. Next time you want to hire someone, make the call yourself. It starts the relationship off on the right foot and signals the importance of organizational values like respect and accountability.

Hallmark. A few days after I accepted the offer, I received a good old-fashioned card in the mail, signed with personalized notes by everyone I met during the interview process. Even a few people I didn’t meet chimed in to share their excitement and congratulate me on joining the team. I felt welcomed before I was even physically onsite.

Gift. On my first day in the office, I received a small friendly-looking plant, some sort of succulent, I suppose, that I promptly starved of light and drowned with water. No, I’m not a plant guy. But the thought itself took root, and that’s what really counts.

Coffee. In the first 60 days, I met with staff across every major function, typically somewhere out of the office but nearby and almost always over coffee or tea. We talked about work, life, and stuff in general. By establishing personal connections early on, I was introduced to the organization and its work. Plus, those 1:1 interactions helped build relational reserves that I now call on when workloads (and tensions) run high or when projects go sideways, as they invariably do at some point.

Personalization. Some people are parts-to-whole learners. Me, I’m a whole-to-parts learner, all the way. I prefer a broad vista from which to survey the landscape. I’m also an introvert, meaning that extended time with people depletes my energy, turning my attention and focus to mush. When you combine those two quirks, you’ve got yourself a colleague who needs space and time to process things, from strategies to tactics—and beyond. My hiring manager customized an onboarding experience with my temperament in mind, building space into my orientation schedule for time to think, take notes, and prioritize.

From me to we. Like any collaborative effort, effective onboarding takes a village, at least a small village of people who are willing to help new hires get established in their new roles within the company. One of the most frequent questions I met with was, “How can I be of help to you?” This question came to me from all quarters, from R&D, finance, IT, and even the executive team, who knows the importance of setting tone at the top, especially when creating an atmosphere where everyone—including new hires—enjoy a sense of belonging and shared purpose.

Originally published on Huffington Post.

Chris Murchison

Ditching Performance Reviews For Authentic Conversations

January 8, 2015

Performance management has a bad rap. Mention the topic and a common reaction is “Ugh!” followed by anecdotes of unfair reviews, reviews that never happened, 360s gone awry, and so on. Most are quick to say that performance management needs some serious help.


Performance management is a core system in most organizations, a process for driving both optimal human and organizational performance. However, “more than 70% of all organizations dislike the process they have,” says Josh Bersin, Founder and Principal of Bersin by Deloitte, “and I have yet to talk with an employee or manager who likes it at all (one client calls it a ‘soul-crushing exercise’).” Bersin’s team additionally reports that “only 8%of companies report that their performance management process drives high levels of value, while 58% said it is not an effective use of time.”

Reimagining performance in organizations

There are alternatives and it might be easier than you think. Recognizing the limitations of traditional performance management processes, Adobe has undertaken a courageous experiment by abolishing performance reviews altogether and replacing them with the Check-In, an innovative, “form light” and empowering performance management approach that focuses on real-time feedback and recognition.

Like Adobe, we have also dismantled the traditional performance review and replaced it with what we call the Annual Conversation, a process inspired by an innovative practice introduced by Planned Parenthood of Southern New England over 10 years ago. It’s intended to inspire a reflective and generative conversation about performance between a manager and her direct reports, at a deeper level than might occur in regular supervision meetings throughout the year.

Here’s how it works:

Questions. We’ve created questions to help guide Annual Conversations. The questions are like landmarks, useful ways to get oriented and inspire future-focused thinking about life and work. Examples include, “What are you working on when you feel the most purposeful? Why is this activity meaningful to you?” Or, “What would you attempt to do in the next year if you knew you could not fail? We crowdsource questions from the entire organization and employees can add any questions they like to the basic list.

Reflection. Prior to the conversation, employees are invited to think about the questions and prepare responses. Some employees start weeks in advance, recalling successes and challenges, taking notes about goals and aspirations. Other employees prep just a day or two in advance. The point is to prepare in whatever way works best for you to engage in an open, honest conversation.

Location. Place has everything to do with how comfortable we feel in conversation. Do you want to talk inside or outside, at a café or a park? Whatever the case may be, employees choose a location for the meeting, one that will support the kind of conversation he wants to have with his manager.

Time. It’s not uncommon for some Annual Conversations to last four to six hours, depending on the location, scope and depth of the conversation. But typically most last anywhere from two to four hours. There’s no set timeframe – it’s up to the manager and employee to decide what works best for them.

Non-evaluation. The Annual Conversation is not an evaluation of past performance; it’s a chance to reflect honestly and deepen understanding of what’s working and what’s not, with an eye to setting future goals and enhancing growth and performance. There are no letter grades or performance rankings of any sort.

Merit. Unlike traditional performance reviews, the Annual Conversation is not coupled to merit or incentive pay. These decisions are made separately and communicated outside the framework of the Annual Conversation.

Manager. The manager’s role is to ask good questions and listen deeply. There is nothing for her to prepare. All the prep a manager has to do is to clear her mind of distraction, focus her attention on her direct report, listen, and ask questions to help deepen reflection.

Getting results

Our staff look forward to their Annual Conversations and the impact on our culture has been profound. Employees report that they feel seen, heard, appreciated, and supported. As a result, some staff, including managers, make astounding leaps in focus, growth and productivity.

Experiments like Adobe’s Check-In and HopeLab’s Annual Conversation serve as an important reminders that performance management does not have to be a dreaded exercise. It can be soul enlivening and a win-win: a win for the employee and the organization.

Originally published on Huffington Post

Chris Murchison

The Art of Listening

November 19, 2014

“Listen first, speak last.” –Peter F. Drucker

Listening is core to our work at HopeLab. Listening is how we understand the needs of customers, the goals of our partners and the passions of our employees. Our success depends on our ability to truly understanding the interests of other – what we call “deep listening.”

We’ve recently turned the mirror on ourselves, inviting Monica Worline, an organizational ethnographer, to listen in on the day-to-day at HopeLab. For the past year, Monica has documented how we engage and connect as colleagues in the workplace and with people outside our organization. Her work is now being developed for publication, offering insight on how organizations support environments of creativity, innovation and compassion.

Inspired by the experience of being heard, a member of our staff who was interviewed by Monica penned a Haiku in honor of her exceptional listening skills. That poem of gratitude recently found its way into this gorgeous piece of original artwork by Sheri Jarvis, which HopeLab presented to Monica. Beautiful, just beautiful! We just had to share.


Chris Murchison

7 Tips for Asking Highly Effective Questions

November 4, 2014

“Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” –Stephen Covey

Business leaders support individuals and help them perform their best. But providing guidance and feedback to others can be challenging. People have shifting interests, concerns, and worries. So as a leader, you cannot support people unless you know what they think and how they feel. And this can only be done by asking meaningful questions and listening deeply.


Inquiry of this kind does not come naturally to everyone. Like most things in life, it takes practice and effort. The tips below, inspired by the Quaker practice of discernment, can help you hone your skills and become a better leader, in business, at home, or anywhere in between.

1. Powerful questions are simple. Complex inquiry can obscure what is really being asked. Keep it simple.

2. The best mark of a great question is that you cannot predict the answer. If you know the answer to a question you pose, then you are voicing a statement or opinion rather than an open and honest questions.

3. Ask questions that help people name what they already know. If we listen closely and carefully, answers to most questions come from inner experience. Allow space for people to connect to this experience.

4. Ask questions that expand exploration. Your questions should open up and expand inquiry, rather than narrow it down too quickly.

5. Ask questions about perceptions and feelings, not just the issue at hand. Sometimes answers aren’t found in our words but elsewhere in our body, a gut feeling, for example. Ask questions that allow people to connect with this experience.

6. Avoid storytelling or bringing attention to yourself. When listening to others, our heads can get filled with reactions to what a person is saying rather than listening deeply to their words. Stay focused on the other person and their story, not your own. Listen to understand.

7. Make room for silence. Responses to good questions can be like peeling an onion. There may be layer upon layer of answers until something deeply meaningful is revealed at the core. Getting through these layers requires time. Wait. Be patient.

The presence of a great thought partner and listener can be profound and highly influential in a person’s development. When people are truly heard, they feel a deeper sense of belonging, inspiring trust and loyalty and improving engagement and overall work performance. And when employees are engaged and performing at their best, you create the potential for positive impact on your organization’s culture.

Originally published on Huffington Post

Chris Murchison

Does Your Job Make You A Better Person?

August 12, 2014

We tend to think of our professional lives as distinct from our personal ones.

Outside the office, we may be cooks or gardeners, coaches, dancers or photographers. Whatever we care deeply about happens outside of the office, away from our desk and colleagues, after hours and with people that matter most to us. We compartmentalize, keeping work separate from life and aiming to keep them “balanced.”


But the distinction between professional and personal cheats us. It assumes there’s one “you” who shows up for work and another one who shows up at home or on the weekend, in the real world. This assumption robs us of being whole and fully human in both contexts, a loss to our co-workers and our family and friends.

Engaging the whole person

In a Deliberately Developmental Organization (a term recently coined by authors on the Harvard Business Review blog), one of the most important strategic goals is to tap the potential of the whole person, her hopes and fears, her strengths and weaknesses. It’s a belief that work can be a place where your full potential can be realized and where you can also become a better person, not just earn money to pay the bills.

We take the goal of deliberate development seriously at HopeLab.

It starts in the interview process, where we go beyond job experience and competencies to learn what motivates candidates and inspires them. Questions in the interview might include, “What are you passionate about?” “What makes you laugh out loud?” Or “What activities do you lose yourself in?” Answers to these questions say a lot about potential fit as well as areas where a new employee might contribute in broader ways to our mission and culture.

We also focus on deliberate development by creating supervision and performance management practices that support the whole person. In addition to encouraging regular check-ins, we’ve moved away from the annual performance review. Instead we have an annual conversation, where supervisors and supervisees reflect on achievements and challenges, and prioritize meaningful activities for the year ahead, and have an authentic conversation that sparks honesty and clarity.

Lastly, at HopeLab we recognize that how we work with others is also a rich opportunity for deliberate development. We’ve experimented with Myers-Briggs, the Enneagram, and other tools to help us become more aware of personality types and work styles. One of my favorite practices at HopeLab is our use of staff development funds. Although this money is spent in different ways—on life coaching, physical training, or photography classes, to name a few—they all have one thing in common: igniting a sense of purpose and meaning in staff. Employees return to the office with a renewed excitement that infuses their work and interactions with others.

All of these efforts help create a workplace that supports deliberate development. The result? A workforce that is open to growth, strives to excel, and has increasing capacity to meet your organization’s mission.

Chris Murchison

Can Business Be a Force for Good?

July 24, 2014

Negative business practices earn splashy headlines, e.g., Enron, AIG, and others. But I’ve always believed that business can be a force for good, both for the individuals that make up the organization and society at large.

In May, the University of Michigan’s Ross Business School hosted the first annual Positive Business Conference, drawing over 350 scholars, business executives, HR leaders, and others to hear about research, stories and practices in successful and positive businesses across the globe.


“We develop leaders who make a positive difference in the world,” states Allison Davis-Blake, the Dean of the Business School. “We can solve our most complex challenges by empowering those who believe that business can, and should, be a force for good.”

The power of positive organizations

According to conference organizers, positive business is built on three foundations, (1) creating positive value in the world, (2) creating great workplaces, and (3) being a good neighbor in your community and to the planet. Participants at the conference were introduced to scholarship and practice in all three domains, everything from responsible supply chain management to positive accounting to building high-quality connections in workplace communities.

As a longtime believer in the necessity of building positive workplaces, I found that the conference was an incredible opportunity to better understand different organizational aspects that must work together to support a system that creates positive value in the world.

I was impressed by executives who shared stories about how they’re revamping employee rewards systems, crafting unique programs to support disadvantaged community members, catalyzing innovations to support environmental sustainability, and more.  I was also inspired by faculty whose research shows so beautifully the impact of positive business practices today.

Weeks after the conference, one particular quote stands out to me. “It’s not just about culture, it’s about changing the world,” says Dan Hendrix, CEO of Interface. His comment is a great reminder that positive workplaces tap the full potential of people and that an engaged workforce enables an organization to achieve its mission and make a positive impact in the world.


For any leader who wants to learn about culture and business impact, I highly encourage you to attend next year’s conference.

I will definitely be there.

Kevin Neilson

The Power of Positive Organizations

June 25, 2014

Last month at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, HopeLab was honored to be named one of five finalists for the Positive Business Project, a contest designed to celebrate exceptional businesses and business leaders that make a positive difference in the world.

“Positive business practices can—and do—have transformative results within organizations and the entries are proof of that,” said Wally Hopp, senior associate dean for faculty and research at Ross.

Please take a moment to watch our video submission.

Questions and curiosities—they’re all welcome!


Leave the Drama Behind…

April 18, 2014

From presidents to parents, we are all leaders in some way. Every day we make choices that matter. In this multi-part series, we encourage readers to consider their choices as leaders using HopeLab’s Questions for a Curious Leader. The goal? To spark a personal, fiercely honest reflection that supports greater clarity – where new possibilities and perspectives can then emerge. 


We can be fully committed to taking 100% responsibility for our lives and living with integrity even if we know we will fall short at times.  It’s not about perfection. It’s about intention and commitment. How might we begin to appreciate what it means to take 100% responsibility, being fully accountable for our lives and our decisions?

To better understand this, at HopeLab, we often use a simple tool – the so-called “drama triangle” to help us discern whether we are taking more than or less than 100% responsibility. The drama triangle has three roles on it – the villain, the victim and the hero. Each role demands the presence of at least one of the others in order to exist. (A hero needs a victim to rescue, a villain needs a hero to blame, etc.)

Let’s take a closer look at each role.

The Victim

What are we doing when we choose (and it is a choice) to play the victim? As victims, we feel at the effect of the world, overwhelmed and powerless. We may complain of being overworked, underappreciated, and tired, but we continue to seek out situations that will cause us pain and suffering so heroes rescue us or villains exploit us.

When we find ourselves saying “I don’t have a choice,” or “I can’t get out of this,” or “I have to sacrifice myself,” we’re playing the victim. We have sad eyes and sorry excuses. As victims, we feel so burdened. We take less than 100% responsibility for our circumstances and seek out heroes to come to our rescue or villains to blame.

The Villain

What about the villain? Every drama requires a great villain! As villains, we play the juicy part of blaming others or ourselves, zeroing in on someone or something to criticize. We finger-wag. We are masters of the blame game. Self righteous in our condemnations, villains are “my way or the highway” actors. We might be cynical, narcissistic, puritanical, or sarcastic, but we are always right. Just ask us.

When you find yourself saying “You’re doing it all wrong!”, “Whose fault is this anyway?” or you’re blaming the government, the DMV, or the weather for your woes, you’ve cast yourself in the role of the villain.

Villains gladly take more than 100% responsibility for a situation so we can blame ourselves when things don’t turn out as we’d like or less than 100% so we can blame others. Who cares as long as we get to place the blame? As villains, we require victims or heroes.

The Hero

Finally, the hero! It’s evident why one might not wish to be a villain or a victim, but what could possibly be wrong with wanting to be a hero? Well for one thing, on the drama triangle, it demands we perpetuate others acting like victims or villains so we can maintain our hero status. It’s exhausting, but somebody has to do it.

As heroes, we crave problems to fix and people to save. We will protect, analyze, listen, provide, and go the extra mile, all in an attempt to seek temporary relief from pain or discomfort we would just as soon not face. For example, doing workarounds for colleagues rather than having a direct conversation with them about their performance. Or paying an addict’s rent rather than allowing her to bottom out.

When we find ourselves saying “I’ll keep you from harm,” or “I’ll make it all better,” or “I can do it all right now,” we’re playing the hero.

As heroes, we take on more than 100% responsibility so we can feel appreciated and acknowledged. We love the applause. We live for the curtain call and the standing O.

These are the actors on the drama triangle—victim, villain, and hero—and they can consume us, running the show, leaving our integrity in shambles and our energy drained.

In some of our more elaborate performances, we even play the roles of victim, villain and hero all by ourselves. We’re a one-person show: as the victim, we cry about being loaded down with work, as the hero, we stay up all night to complete the job, then as the villain, we gossip at the water cooler, blaming others for our woes.

Sound familiar? So, what to do?

Step off the off the drama triangle and into presence, fully into our lives. Stop blaming, rescuing or whining.  Seek meaningful resolution and accountability. Keep the promises we make. Stop saying things about others we would be unwilling to say in their presence. Exchange self-righteous certainty for curiosity.

100% responsibility for 100% of our lives. It’s our ticket to integrity, to energetic lives of impact, connection and purpose. Better than any drama. It’s the greatest show on Earth.

This blog series is based on the writing of Pat Christen, Susan Edsall, Chris Murchison and Richard Tate. In creating Questions for a Curious Leader, we’ve benefited greatly from the contributions of several colleagues and partners. To learn more, please download the quick reference guide.    


Integrity: The Path To Self-Mastery

April 18, 2014

From presidents to parents, we are all leaders in some way. Every day we make choices that matter. In this multi-part series, we encourage readers to consider their choices as leaders using HopeLab’s Questions for a Curious Leader. The goal? To spark a personal, fiercely honest reflection that supports greater clarity – where new possibilities and perspectives can then emerge.


Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book Outliers: The Story of Success breaks down the concept of masterful practice. In his book, Gladwell cites the work of K. Anders Ericsson who studied mastery and top performance in a wide array of professions including surgery, acting, programming, music, and firefighting. Ericsson found that “the journey to truly superior performance is neither for the faint of heart nor the impatient.” The same might be said of the practice of integrity.

Mastery of any endeavor is not simply about practicing a lot. It is also about a particular type of deliberate practice that pushes you beyond your competence and comfort with attention, intentionality and resilience.

Ericsson’s research illustrated the “10,000 hours or 10 years” rule of practice essential for mastery. Athletes and musicians alike brought precise attention to the placement of their bodies, their thoughts and their emotions as they cultivated their genius. Purposeful, highly focused practice might occur up to 5-6 hours per day, but rarely more. Rest was essential.

Ericsson’s research also revealed that one may well need “a well-informed coach not only to guide you through deliberate practice but also to help you learn how to coach yourself.” We can’t go it alone.

Integrity too is a practice that takes discipline. We inevitably fail along the way. Mastering the practice is a lifetime’s work. And the practice will not look that different from the aspiring violinist or the Olympic swimmer–to get better we’ll need knowledgeable instructors and a willingness to push at the boundaries of our learning edge. Curiosity, candor and accountability are handy assets in the practice. It is humbling, rewarding work.

There are no short cuts.  Staying curious and keeping the promises we make—living in whole-hearted integrity—may be the practice of a lifetime; but we need only start with this moment. What do you intend to do with it?


This blog series is based on the writing of Pat Christen, Susan Edsall, Chris Murchison and Richard Tate. In creating Questions for a Curious Leader, we’ve benefited greatly from the contributions of several colleagues and partners. To learn more, please download the quick reference guide.