Yup!… Your Strengths Can Get You in Trouble

Appreciating and leveraging our natural talents and accumulated strengths is an important element of a successful career.  Yet when those same valuable attributes are leaned on TOO heavily, they crowd out complementary behaviors. Heavy-handed reliance on our strengths creates a false sense of security and enables narrow, rigid thinking and can even drive away colleagues.

Two executives I coached recently got such feedback and were asked to work on their tendencies with their coach (me). They got down to business, and each of them recently forwarded to me emails from their CEOs with unsolicited praise about how they are showing up with colleagues. This big step forward took just a couple of months of focused intention. They each chose to step back and explore their assumptions about cause-and-effect. They had been over-attributing positive outcomes to particular behaviors (“strengths”) that they liked to use and under-attributing a few negative consequences (including employee demotivation and performance issues) to dynamics that they had inadvertently introduced.

Simple questions you can ask yourself: What else could be true (about my role in this issue)? When might my assumptions not be so consistently true? For example, if you think that you have to drive certain staff hard or check up on all their work to sustain high performance, you may be overlooking your negative impact: they may be afraid to ask for help when they need it, they may not trust themselves to take smart risks if they feel you don’t trust them, or they may withhold good ideas because they are rewarded to conforming tightly to your demands.

Keep playing to your true strengths when they serve your objectives – and remember they are part of a larger tool kit that is at your disposal! I’d love to hear your own examples of reining in an overused strength and what resulted.

If Only You Could Reduce the Stress at Work… You Can!

Our main sources of stress seem to come from outside ourselves, they happen to us… leaders overcommit, clients get angry, colleagues drop the ball, bosses change their minds. But what if you could influence the amount of organizational anxiety those stressors generate? … You can!

Neuroscience has taught us that moods are highly contagious – the good ones as well as the bad ones. Recall intense meetings where relationships were strained or bad news just broke. Have you been in this situation and then found yourself very relieved by someone else’s composed response… when someone you respect – likely in leadership – was staying calm? It is powerfully reassuring – it physiologically lifts us – when we are in proximity to a calm person in an anxiety-inducing situation. Non-work examples I’ve experienced include turbulence on an airplane, or being lost and late while driving somewhere.

Challenge yourself to “BE that guy/woman” who injects a bit more contagious calmness into your work environment. It’s ok if you cannot authentically sustain a completely calm, confident response for very long. And you don’t have to have reassuring answers or sugarcoat the situation to justify your calm. Just pause long enough to be more thoughtful and less reactive to the escalating moods and questionable actions of others. Model a response that is calmer than the group average for at least the duration of a meeting. Simply by not adding to the collectively expressed anxiety, you can bring down overall stress levels and their ripple effect.

Wouldn’t You Rather Flow into the New Year (than lunge into it)?

Many of us put extra pressure on ourselves around the new year — in the form of exuberant goal-setting, self-critical reflections on the year just completed, or a general restlessness around our sense of purpose.  Join me in loosening your grip on all of the above.  The following excerpt (unknown source) was read to me years ago on a rafting trip in Colorado. Rivers are great teachers!…
The expression “going with the flow” is a metaphor that applies to navigating a river. When we go with the flow, we follow the current of the river rather than push against it. People who go with the flow may be interpreted as lazy or passive, but to truly go with the flow requires awareness, presence, and the ability to blend one’s own energy with the prevailing energy. Going with the flow means we let go of our individual agenda and notice the play of energy all around us. We tap into that energy and flow with it, which gets us going where we need to go a whole lot faster than resistance will.
Going with the flow doesn’t mean that we don’t know where we’re going; it means that we are open to multiple ways of getting there. We are also open to changing our destination, clinging more to the essence of our goal than to the particulars. Many of us are afraid of going with the flow because we don’t trust that we will get where we want to go… We cling to plans that aren’t working, stick to routes that are obstructed, and obsess over relationships that aren’t fulfilling. When you find yourself stuck, do yourself a favor and be open to the flow of what is rather than resisting it. Throw overboard those things that are weighing you down. Be open to revising your maps. Take a deep breath and move into the current.

Fix Your Conversations with More “Yes, and…” 

My bold personal move this fall was to enroll in a beginner’s improv class.  I love it! The core principles of good improv have much in common with good coaching, good meetings and good management conversations.  The life blood of improv is the ability of one person to fully hear and embrace what their partner(s) says – without dismissing the message or the intentions and emotions that are behind it.
An improv skit dies if one performer does not build on what their partner puts out there.  The performers don’t seem competent, and the audience checks out.  Unfortunately, it may not be as obvious when a workplace conversation has unraveled, and if we do see it, we do not understand the causes.  A meeting may stay cordial, voices will continue to interject, but the quality and quantity of actual collective progress is diminished.  We hear a lot of “yes, but….” as everyone operates in their own lane, fueled primarily by their own preexisting assumptions and ideas rather than by peer contributions.  If we don’t build on each other’s current thinking, with the “yes, and…” philosophy of improv, then collaboration erodes and decisions do not align.
I challenge you to explicitly validate colleagues more often, even if you agree with only part of their viewpoint.  If you can say, “Yes, and…” instead of “Yes, but…” you will actually stay in meaningful conversations longer, until more is learned, more is accomplished and more is agreed upon.

Power of Paraphrasing

I have learned from my coaching and facilitation work how powerful paraphrasing can be. When grounded in authentic, nonjudgmental, curious listening, and not used to interrupt, redirect or override, it can enhance the value of any conversation.Here’s how it typically plays out. I’ll listen to a client (or team) describe a job challenge or area of frustration — letting them wander a bit about how they feel, throw in some examples, and even draw discouraging conclusions. And then I’ll use more neutral and precise language to highlight what seems most important to them or to synthesize their story into a theme we can explore. As a result…

  • The individual is energized by the sheer fact that she (or he) is truly being heard and understood – their stress goes down, and their sense of possibility go up;
  • She is motivated to continue thinking out loud, using the paraphrasing as helpful building blocks to advance her own thinking;
  • Sometimes an exciting fresh “spark” of insight emerges by combining their own thoughts with the paraphrasing;
  • Finally, the culminating clarity of thought leaves the individual (or team) feeling more confident about navigating their work challenges, because seemingly large but vague negative feelings have been transformed into discrete problems or opportunities that seem within reach.

With deep listening and paraphrasing in your conversational tool kit, you can be a valuable thought partner to any colleague or friend. Just look out for any signs that you are off base, overdoing it and interrupting, or talking more than listening.

React or Reset: The Choice That Every Conversation Presents

So much comes at us via our daily conversations… requests, misunderstanding, emotions, surprises, opinions and so on. Much of it may be welcome, validating, and easy to respond to. Some of it seriously challenges us! My coaching often focuses on those challenges: an executive feels disappointed, misled, disrespected, or misunderstood. We talk about how they will respond or recover from their initial response.

First, acknowledge that the initial tempting response in a challenging exchange is to express our raw emotion – to validate our own views, efforts, and ego. For example, a CEO client inadvertently heard an employee make an unprofessionally harsh comment about the CEO. The employee was mortified. The CEO could easily have treated her harshly. Instead, she wisely told her, “I’m going to assume that was a one-time mistake and just put it behind me. You should too.”

The desire to be unfiltered is understandable but rarely constructive. Our reactive responses come from our emotional triggers, our egos, and our fatigue. They are an instinctive attempt to simply cope through the moment at hand.

So how do we resist? We need compelling reasons, and I believe we all have those reasons right in front of us. Namely, our values and our agenda. The trick is to “catch” yourself before you let emotions and impulses do the talking, and remember to pause and choose the more thoughtful, values-based approach. This is hard and takes practice, since it entails discrediting our instincts.

I love to engage with clients as they think out loud and choose the value or end goal they will use to drive their next exchange with a challenging colleague. Just pick one important professional value that you strive to model – such as flexibility, a learning mentality, calmness, appreciation, staff development, etc. Or pick one important work-specific goal, such keeping a particular person motivated, keeping a relationship cooperative, getting a task done well. With the value or goal as your compass, choose your next move. If your “script” does not fully embody that value or goal, then you haven’t chosen well. This is not a guarantee of perfect outcomes, but it ensures you will contribute to rather than detract from desired results. And you’ll have less to regret later.

Worst case. Best case. Most likely case… What to plan for

What conversations worry you? My executive clients often must plan for conversations that they are anxious about. They worry about being misunderstood – everything from coming on too strong to appearing weak or incompetent– and ultimately not getting close to their desired outcome. A simple 3-step mental exercise can help you prepare for your own difficult conversations.

Our survival instincts lead us to focus on the worst-case outcome of a tricky interaction. For example, one client recently thought that initiating an assertive conversation about a promotion possibility could backfire, such that her boss would think less of her and it would strain their relationship. It’s good to acknowledge such possibilities as your Step One.

Next, as Step Two, force yourself to consider what the best possible outcome might look like – which is the reason to have your conversation in the first place. Think broadly of any secondary benefits as well as the main one – e.g., a stronger work relationship or a new win/win solutions.

And Step Three is where you ground yourself: Consider what the most likely outcome will be. It will lie between the two extremes, and should now feel both achievable and worth pursuing. By doing this, my promotion-seeking client built up the courage to plan and have her promotion conversation using the right language.

When we see past worst-case thinking, and head into a meeting that we think we can manage and that has worthwhile objectives, our can-do mindset shows up in words, body language, tone and agility. So, try the whole preparation package: Step One, Step Two, and Step Three thinking.

Yikes… I’ve Never Done This Before!

You know that uncomfortable feeling… You’re a rookie on a new assignment.  You might screw it up or choke in front of colleagues, others may sense your inexperience.  Your reputation is on the line along with your organization’s results.
Self-limiting, fear can arise whenever we take on a new responsibility.  Whether it is managing a team, presenting to top management, or planning a new program, we can easily talk ourselves out of confidence and position ourselves to underperform.    OR… we can “flip” what we do with that unfamiliarity.

Everything you’ve successfully done, and anything you’ve later excelled at is something that, at some point, you did for the first time – and survived.  Most of those firsts probably tapped into skills you already have, and were not failures, even if you later improved.  So, to manage anxiety, it is worth noting these potential advantages of being a beginner rather than an expert.  You will likely:

  • Be more creative and resourceful, looking at things from more angles rather than rely on old assumptions, conventions or narrow perspectives
  • Be more curious and ask great questions without being self-conscious or over-relying on what worked last time
  • Be more thorough and thoughtful rather than use “auto pilot” or wing it
  • Be more energized by the work because you are in learning mode
And whether a beginner, intermediate or expert at something, you always operate along a spectrum of many possible outcomes such that one misstep or bad judgment call is not failure.  A mistake is simply a notch back on that spectrum, putting you at a new starting point from which to continue, with trust in yourself and your sources of support.

Yes, You Can Be TOO Cooperative

Being called a collaborative team player is a legitimate mark of good performance. A cooperative approach helps any group improve the quantity and quality of work done. So can you really overdo it? Surprisingly, yes, and here’s why….

Being very accommodating to the requests, suggestions and implicit demands of others often involves serious trade-offs that may not result in a net gain. Some examples from my clients:

– When a less informed manager proposes an ill-advised plan of action, but in deference to her seniority, you do not make a case for a preferable alternative.
– When you try to educate your boss about an imminent decision but do so with such an accommodating touch that you sound ambivalent and are not truly heard.
– When someone (intentionally or not) deflects your concerns by inappropriately joking about them and you go along, maybe even encouraging them with friendly laughter.
– When team members complain about their work, and in order to keep them happy, you let them off the hook, crowding out your own important work to do theirs.

Each example reveals opportunity costs of some kind…
[Read more…]

Good News: You’re Part of the Problem

A new coaching client, after our first session, said “I now see that I’m part of the problem.” His new awareness is a wonderful launching point for valuable work. Unfortunately, this insight is more often something we resist or deny. Our egos work very hard – and effectively — to have us look the other way, outside of ourselves, when diagnosing interpersonal problems. We are naturally skilled at finding something and someone to blame for any friction in our work relationships. But it of course takes two to sustain a conflict. Regardless of who has more or less responsibility for the initial communication breakdown, as long as each party has more than 1 percent responsibility, both parties can and should help move toward an improved status quo.

You can choose to look for this “I’m part of the problem” discovery in any strained work relationships, and then see it as good news. It’s good news for two reasons:
• First, if you are part of the problem, then you are already embedded right at the heart of it.
[Read more…]

Go Slow to Go Fast

As we energetically lean forward into the new year with fresh goals and to-do lists, it’s a good time to also slow down. Overdoing it on work pace is a recurring temptation that doesn’t deliver. In fact, one reason my clients value their coaching sessions is because they provide a legitimate excuse and safe place to step off the efficiency treadmill to do some valuable work that requires a slower, more thoughtful pace.

Whether it’s due to our hardwired nature, pressure from colleagues, difficulty saying no, client deadlines, or all of the above, we often show up to our work assuming that maximum speed is good. But maximum productivity isn’t achieved at maximum speed. Going pedal to the metal entails unseen opportunity costs, such as overlooking a better solution to a problem, a colleague’s great idea, chances to learn or teach or to strengthen a relationship.

To move toward your own optimal pace, look at the possible benefits listed below.
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We Need to Even Things Out

WheelPose Decades ago, as a gymnast, I used to do this wheel pose without a thought. Now, in yoga class, striking the right balance of strength and flexibility requires greater care. My yoga teacher recently offered a trick that applies to other difficult endeavors. Here’s the tip… EVEN THINGS OUT. In other words, spread out your effort – and awareness – across all the challenge spots of an endeavor.

Anything that really challenges us to the point of feeling a strain demands things of us on multiple fronts — be strategic AND practical AND creative, be decisive AND thorough AND adaptive
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The Golden Rule Is Not Enough

The Golden Rule – Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. – falls short, if you want to be a great colleague, manager, or friend who brings out the best in others.

For example, I recently helped an executive (“Anne”) understand that just because she thrives when granted autonomy and flexibility to do her work, she cannot assume that the same thing works for her team members. She now realizes that employees who want more guidance and feedback are not necessarily “high maintenance,” but rather, simply value structure and predictability over autonomy and flexibility, and she has adjusted her management style accordingly. Anne also discovered that her own work style is embedded with needs and wants that others accommodate to bring out her best. The learning has been a win/win.[ Read more…]

How Often Do You Listen to Learn

Listening makes people feel valued and connected, it strengthens relationships via clarified assumptions and perspectives, and it reveals new ideas. Importantly, it is also fertile ground for learning on the part of the listener. I recently helped an executive better understand the value of being a good listener. High quality, truly curious and patient listening did not come naturally to this particular fast-paced executive.

My client insightfully noted that if he had a goal to guide him as to what he should listen for, then he’d be better equipped to practice his listening. So he committed to becoming a better listener by entering conversations with the explicit intention of listening to learn something he did not already know.[ Read more…]

What Snow Days Can Teach Us

This winter was a great opportunity to observe the impact of snow days on our work and lives. It’s not surprising that people accept the slow-down that a big storm and unplowed roads impose on us. We understand when people cannot travel safely or predictably, and postpone meetings and deliverables. If reasonable efforts are made to take care of top priorities and do some contingency planning, no one gets criticized, blamed, and penalized. But this adaptability is very much the exception in our busy lives.

The widespread acceptance of a “Snow Day Slow-down” is a refreshing reminder, in our fast-paced, do-more, do-it-now culture, that the consequences of a delay are often not as costly as we imagine. […]

Using Your “Zoom Lens” for Steadier Performance

The most successful leaders I work with are also the steadiest. They don’t get thrown off their game by bad news and don’t overreact to problems, even messy ones. Such strong grounding is admirable, effective, and contagious. So what capacities keep these managers so well grounded? One common element seems to be their ability to fluidly adjust their perspective. They can “zoom out” from a specific problem and bring their attention to the entire landscape of priorities, resources, opportunities and challenges. When we stay aware of the entire landscape, then unwanted developments in any one area are a relatively smaller problem – a minor bump – on our professional terrain. And the rest of the landscape remains an accessible array of resources – a place to look for new solutions and smart detours without overreacting. A look at the broader landscape in which we work also serves as a healthy and humbling reminder that it’s not all about us.

In contrast, we’ve all seen the hardcore problem-solver manager who literally pounces on the problem of the day and lets it consume all of his or her attention and energy (sucking others in as well), as if all measures of their success and failure depend on that one problem. Responsive problem-solving is certainly a valuable management skill; but it can quickly shrink our solution space.

Do You Know Who Thinks You’re Great?

In recent coaching engagements, I’ve been struck at how surprised my clients were to hear some of the unrestrained praise I collected about them from their closest colleagues and superiors, as part of my 360-degree feedback interviews. The positive energy and motivation such feedback generates in a leader is an enormous pay off that many organizations underestimate or simply forget to tap into. Compared to praise and appreciation that comes from just one employee or manager at a time, the collective themes that can emerge from a 360 assessment are especially validating.

Offered up an open question from a neutral party (me), in a private conversation, one of my client’s colleagues described the individual as “a miracle worker… remarkable… with the toughest job of anyone… admirably finds common ground where others could not…” and another executive was described by board and staff as “an excellent visionary leader… (who) inspires and supports his staff… a passionate spokesperson for the mission … worth his weight in gold… I adore him!” We rarely hear such candor and expressive views in our face to face interactions.

In neither case was the individual a perfect manager.

Maintaining Your “Landing Gear”

We all have been on the receiving end of comments, feedback and even jokes that don’t “land” well. They miss the intended effect by an inch or a mile – generating annoyance instead of appreciation, defensiveness instead of learning, and confusion or even offense instead of amusement.

Similarly, everything that comes out of our own mouths “lands” somewhere. We owe it to those around us to try for smooth landings. Here are a few client examples of how greater awareness about your landing gear (communication skills) can improve your work relationships and impact.

— A senior executive I coach often forgets, in the heat of the moment, that the team that supports him (where all his requests and demands “land”) is as important as the steady stream of ideas and projects he generates. Andy sometimes sounds condescending or annoyed such that his ideas and requests are not willingly embraced. He is now experimenting successfully with ways to communicate in a more collaborative, respectful and less frenetic tone. <> […]

Can You Be TOO Self-Aware?  [Answer: Maybe.]

The power of self-awareness is something that we coaches expound upon as the key to behavior changes.  And the link is indeed strong.  But our attempts at self-understanding can sometimes be wasted effort.   Specifically, when the particular feeling we want to understand is self-doubt, it may be best to forge ahead without thoroughly exploring “Why do I feel overwhelmed or unqualified for this challenge?”  A powerful and engrained story may not let you answer the question constructively anyway.

I just completed a coaching engagement with a professional services executive (call her Nina) who wanted to get more comfortable initiating conversations with people she didn’t know well, in support of business development.  Nina’s breakthrough progress led to a series of external meetings that is now spiraling into valuable new business opportunities. […]

Less Really is More (and More is Less)

It is the season of New Year’s resolutions, when we are tempted to make big new personal declarations – that get added to our lengthy to-do lists.  As a devoted fan of lists, I’ve concluded that long to-do lists are a bad thing.  Whether lurking in the back of your mind, on the back of a napkin or digitally in a cool iPhone app, such lists, because they are a symbol of all that is not yet done, can drain our mental energy, motivation and sometimes self-esteem – before we even begin to tackle them.  So take a pause before you add to your list of resolutions.  And perhaps even prune your list now. […]

Refuse to Lose

I’ve heard the phrase “refuse to lose” in the media quite a bit recently to describe Olympic champions, NFL players and tennis superstars at the US Open.  It seems a perfect way to describe the conviction of champion athletes.  We don’t need the mega-dose of talent that they have to learn from their mindset and adapt it to our own goals. […]

What If You Had a Super Power at Work?

My kids used to fantasize about which super power they’d want and the potential uses of each – flying, invisibility, super-speed… We’d theorize about which one could do the greatest good in as many challenging situations as possible. I think we all have a super power at our disposal. It’s Trust. Exhibiting trust and being […]

Reinventing Yourself

There’s a high stakes legal battle brewing between Apple and Samsung around the patent protection that Apple’s iPad can claim.  Samsung asserts that many of the design concepts of the iPad were in the public domain before the release of the first iPad, such that Apple cannot claim inventor’s rights. Fortunately, when it comes to […]

Fake It ‘Til You Make It

We all know the look of someone who seems to walk into a room and exude power.  Relying on no more than non-verbal cues, we have a sense of who wields relatively more or less truly powerful influence over those around them and is less easily threatened by their environment.  Those who naturally and visibly […]

How to Work On Your Weak Spots Using 360 Feedback

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Future Talk

I once read that 80% of all meeting conversations in the work place are about what has already happened, even though the past cannot be changed.  What a waste!  And the alternative is very accessible. “Future talk” is not a science fiction phenomenon.  It simply means deliberately keeping a conversation focused on the time horizon […]

On Purpose: Is Yours Clear?

The importance of PURPOSE seems to be showing up all around me lately.  I see a theme, and trust you may find it as useful as I do. Many professional venues and colleagues have been reminding me of the importance of purposefulness, in one form or another: In a recent coaching training workshop, the central […]

How Much is Enough?

How Much is Enough?  This is a trick question.  Everyone’s right answer is different, and it can change continually for each aspect of your life. Look at the many ways we struggle with this question in our minds: How many late night hours of preparation for that presentation is enough? How much job-related reading and […]

Take a Pass on New Year’s Resolutions

By Hilary Joel Most of us do not need another New Years resolution.  We have enough unfinished business and unfulfilled commitments to ourselves.   Instead, choose an existing resolution that remains stuck, despite your good intentions.  I propose you dust off that resolution for the new year and take it on with a fresh perspective.  Unravel […]

Lean into Fear and Discomfort, to Move Past Them

A colleague recently described to me a specific self-defense concept from the martial arts form Akido.  Here’s the scenario:  an unexpected attacker grabs you from behind by wrapping his arms around your chest to restrain you.  For most of us, our instinct is to pull forward, to get as far away from the attacker as […]

Form Before Substance Sometimes Makes Sense

By Hilary Joel When managing resources and making business decisions, substance of course always matters – what are the facts, what are the considerations and desired outcomes? But more often than we realize, people experience setbacks and disappointments that have nothing to do with substance. Before we even understand the facts, we misunderstand and underestimate […]

First Things First: Give Yourself a Break!

A recent dialogue with fellow coaches highlighted this somewhat obvious fact: Far too many managers and executives (the vast majority of my clients) have jobs that are simply too large to be done by one person. This seems to have become a “given” in most organizations, despite the ripple of negative effects that are perpetuated. […]