Harris has Eureka moment
Tom Kernaghan - May 19, 2021 - People in Business

Photo: Contributed

Are you a toxic manager?

For Barri Harris, transformation coach and founder of The Eureka Project, answering this question begins with a single step toward abiding self-awareness. Harris understands that bridging the seeming chasm between high dysfunction and high performance requires leaders confront their own blind spots and foster trust among their teams. Her vision is brave and inspiring: to create a community where leaders can discuss challenges, share stories and offer information with a focus on best practices—collectively to become the “tipping point that ends toxic workplaces” and leads to lasting legacies.

Harris knows a thing or two about workplaces. Guided by the motto “live by design, not by default,” she helps a vast array of organizations embrace and move through difficult transformations as smoothly and effectively as possible. Holding a certified management account designation, a master’s degree in international economics and finance and several strategic management facilitation certifications, and having excelled as a high-level human performance improvement consultant for 15 years, she can easily recognize the systemic and cultural challenges that hamper workplace progress when people have neither full awareness nor the right tools. Harris also gets why many managers struggle; she has travelled that road herself.

Harris’ life was one of conventional abundance. She had a thriving career as a consultant in project management and strategy, a growing family and enjoyed a number of ski getaways throughout the winter. Yet she wasn’t happy. In a video prepared for Balance Well-Being last year, Harris describes a life filled with everything one might want … except honesty with herself.

First let’s talk about one of your own challenging blind spots: specifically, your perfectionism. How did this affect your work?

I was a toxic boss and didn’t even know it. Like so many of us, I was promoted because I was a high performer. But managing people required a very different skill set, which brought out some of the worst qualities in my personality at first. I didn’t realize I was a perfectionist, but it felt to me that nobody else on my team seemed to grasp what good enough needed to look like. It was faster and easier to do things myself. My team didn’t want to disappoint me, but they also didn’t trust me to have their back. I relegated them to order-takers, and, as they lost their creativity and enthusiasm, our performance got worse over time.

It wasn’t until I was burnt out, stressed out and miserable—trust me on this, I even ended up separated from my partner for nearly a year—that I finally admitted I needed help.

Before you got the help you needed, how did your workplace struggle manifest in your personal life? And then, how did your step into self-awareness improve your relationships with those who were struggling at work?

By the time we have been in the workforce for a few years, we’ve built a strong set of beliefs about what it means to be successful. Mine were pretty typical: success and promotion comes from hard work and commitment. Conflict was to be minimized or avoided, as any disagreement felt like a personal attack. I felt like a different person at work than I was at home. At the time I thought the work me was the better me; strong, decisive, client-focused, efficient and dependable. What I didn’t understand is that these qualities come with both positive and negative aspects. At home, my husband found my decisiveness felt controlling and that I was constantly criticizing him on topics ranging from vacuuming to driving in traffic to parenting. No wonder I was exhausted. I was trying to micromanage everyone and everything in my life to achieve a completely unachievable—and undesirable—vision of success.

Here’s the thing that shocked me. The more I became aware of how my actions impacted others, opened up about my shortcomings and spoke honestly, the more others shared with me about their own struggles. My willingness to be vulnerable and imperfect—to be human—made me more credible and approachable. It was a game-changer for me professionally and personally.

Let’s talk about The Eureka Project. I love the range of modes for sharing information: articles, podcasts, videos and more. First, how did Eureka start? And why is a variety of options so important?

The Eureka Project started from a conversation about why very few companies offer training to new managers on what they are really going to face as they step into the realm of leading and managing complex human beings. The things that I learned, that many of my peers have learned, we typically gained through the school of hard knocks. The worse the experience, the more deeply we learn the lesson.

Our mission is to help people who manage people to understand the good and bad aspects of their management style, and to hone the habits that will accelerate their success. Managers and leaders set the tone for their team and workplace, so reaching the tipping point to make toxic workplace behaviours obsolete relies on each of us taking small steps forward.

Variety is important because management is as much an art as it is a science. That means you can’t just follow a standard set of guidelines to guarantee success. We all struggle in our own ways. We make mistakes, learn from them and then get better. The Eureka Project is offering a variety of practical, affordable, consumable ways to inform and inspire; different voices to help different leaders bridge the gaps unique to their management challenges and organizational cultures.

In your Balance Well-Being video last year, you shared three main tips for living one’s happiest life: cultivate happiness, drop your walls and nourish to flourish. I love the simplicity of this. How do/will these insights inform your ongoing leadership work within Eureka?

Great question. This is the three-legged stool of “finding balance.” From the perspective of work, you’ll cultivate happiness by finding meaning and value; what lights you up at work? Dropping your walls at work involves developing the self-awareness to understand how your behaviours impact others. “Nourish to flourish” is fundamental, as you must nourish your body, mind, and soul with healthy resources in order to consistently show up as your best self.

You also mentioned the World Happiness Report finding that there is a lack of trust in our leaders. This past year has been particularly challenging for all of us. What have you seen that makes you hopeful about the future, particularly with respect to younger or emerging leaders?

The WHR illustrates the link between trust in leaders and organizations, including governments and public sector services, and happiness. The greater the trust, the higher the perception of happiness. As much as the past few years, especially this past one, has challenged that trust, I’ve been really excited at how many people have stepped forward to inspire positive change. I’m a Gen Xer that absolutely loves working with my millennial colleagues. They aren’t willing to accept some of the crappy leadership and boring training of the past. By demanding more, they are forcing us out of the rut we’ve been in for decades as a result of our tacit acceptance of toxic workplace culture.

What can we look forward to next from The Eureka Project?

We are getting ready to launch our website, which is filled with useful resources for managers and leaders, and some cool, scenario-based training simulations that show you how to integrate several powerful management techniques into your day-to-day work.

Tell us something about yourself most wouldn’t know—a fun fact, interesting perspective, or engaging story.

Many years ago, I was on an MBA exchange program in Hong Kong. Several of us went to be extras in a movie, and I ended up being asked to stay on as Melissa Gilbert’s double. Yes, of Little House on the Prairie fame. I spent the next four weeks getting to explore many different regions of Hong Kong and meeting Warner Bros. crew from the U.S., U.K., and Australia. Pretty cool to hang out with a childhood idol!

This column was submitted as part of BWB Wednesdays

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