Stuck? Go Choose an Easier Problem to Solve

You know that feeling!… An in-your-face problem has you feeling stuck. You’re disappointed in yourself and maybe resentful toward others about the situation. Moreover, the “stuckness” is keeping you from being fully productive and feeling competent on your other responsibilities.
If you’ve already tried your favorite problem-solving tactics – like categorizing your decision criteria, comparing scenarios, or group brainstorming — it is not a cop out to just give it a rest. I sometimes put a tough problem aside and turn elsewhere to jumpstart my momentum and feel effective. I’ll choose a much easier problem and solve it – maybe something tactical with fewer variables, lower stakes, and on more familiar terrain. I realize this sounds like I’m encouraging procrastination, something we all do well on our own! But this is different: I suggest that when you’re especially stuck, you turn your attention to another problem or task, with a clear purpose and time limits, in order to unstick yourself. A well chosen active diversion will position you to return to the big ugly problem better equipped in several ways:
  • Cognitively – The change of focus for your mind (different facts, different objectives, different people) will awaken other parts of your brain, connect different dots, and introduce ideas and new perspectives that could be useful, while resting the internal narrative that has you stuck.
  • Physically – If you are mentally stuck, your body is also experiencing the negative feeling, even if subconsciously. By doing something useful, you can “move out” of the rut. You may literally sit up straighter or breathe more easily with the change of focus, and then get energized (an embodied sense of satisfaction) by accomplishing a task or solving something else.
  • Psychologically/Emotionally – The sense of accomplishment you get can shift your mood and mindset in helpful ways. Resulting feelings may include increased confidence, gratitude, optimism, curiosity, joy, or pride, among others. All of these help you bring your best self to your most challenging work!

Are You a Fuel-Efficient Leader?

This quarter, I offer you a page from the playbook of the US women’s national soccer team. As I watched their final match to earn the World Cup championship (again!), I was in awe of how they are continually fueled by their desire to win, with their focus or energy never waning.
Similarly, our work sometimes feels so much less effortful than other times. Some challenges actually increase our precious energy rather than consume it. We all want more of that!
I recently helped an accomplished executive recover the exhilarating joy her work gave her and shed the excess toll that the work relationships were taking on her. For Julie, an in-house attorney, the powerful shift involved doubling down with more focus on the business goals she shared with her internal clients and less on self-protection. She started paying less attention to how much professional respect her clients’ actions conveyed and when they might disregard her advice. Previously, she had been channeling energy into monitoring and reacting to every client move with a cautious and critical eye, making her mood like a volatile thermometer. Predictably, the needed collaboration was rare and exhausting.
Generalizing from Julie’s success and Team USA, when our main mental focus is on the desired outcome and not on what could go wrong, we can stay more energized regardless of obstacles. When we play to win or achieve, we bring our best creativity to a challenge. In contrast, when we play not to lose, with a mindset based in caution, our work feels all uphill. Energy is depleted and we are less resourceful.
Every professional challenge we confront involves a current state, a desired future state and numerous undesirable future states. Without being naively blind to the risks, how can you strengthen your (and your team’s) focus on your desired outcome and reduce your thinking and effort around avoiding undesired results? Can you recall a time when such a creative versus reactive/protective mindset amplified what was possible and cleared a path for your team to overcome challenge with less effort?

Getting It Just Right: Ease and Effort

My quarterly coaching insight is again inspired by yoga. But you don’t have to like or do yoga to appreciate this.

Sometimes, we care so much about something – and are so sure we know the best way to achieve it – that we try too hard.  All that single-minded focus may initially feel like commitment, leadership, and a great work ethic.  Wonderful stuff — up to a point!  But if it morphs into persistent striving–to be right or to win, it frays our nerves and relationships and becomes an exhausting drain on productivity.

I recently worked with an executive I’ll call Sara who generally lived by a “get-it-perfect” mindset that helped her be a topnotch performer. But her high voltage drive and fixation on exactly how things should be done took a toll. Colleagues made her aware of the negativity she injected into team dynamics.  After we unpacked her assumptions about excellence, she loosened her effortful grip on one way of seeing and doing, she noticed which meetings turned south rapidly and why, which tactics worked best in conflicts, and how others were more collaborative if she took more time to listen.  As Sara brought more flexibility and acceptance into her thinking, she created a new normal where collaboration now comes with more ease and the quality of team effort improves.

The take-away lesson can feel counter-intuitive:  Inviting more ease into your work will improve, not dilute, the results of your efforts.  You will make new solutions and better interactions possible.  That ease may include various shifts: loosening your grip on specific expectations, giving a conversation more time, having fewer strong opinions, or pausing and breathing before reacting.  Start with just one “move” toward ease and notice the benefits.

Your Brain on Presumptions: It’s Not Pretty, But It’s Curable

A recent coaching client, call her Anne, was a productive and ambitious over-achiever with expertise and results that top management highly valued. But she had been told she could be so brusque and direct that colleagues at various levels found it hard to work with her. She was described as sometimes intimidating, condescending, exhausting, and emotionally unpredictable. Not good!
At the start of our coaching partnership, Anne shared that she often felt disrespected due to the way her colleagues made demands of her. This incensed her, because being a highly valued professional was a top personal priority. Another one of her priorities was projecting unwavering strength. So when she was triggered by apparent disrespect, she projected an even more “invulnerable” harsher and inapproachable image. You can see the vicious cycle.
Our coaching engagement equipped me with 360-degree data about her colleagues’ perceptions. With the data in hand, I assured Anne that her smarts, talent and contributions were unquestionably respected. She had filled her knowledge gap with an incorrect assumption. By ending her imagined need to “fight” for respect, she found great new possibilities. We identified small ways to show up differently to her colleagues and reverse negative perceptions. She used more questions, explained more patiently, and established clearer boundaries – without the emotional load. Relationship improvements quickly emerged.
As Anne demonstrates, discarding old inaccurate assumptions can be powerful. When such presumptions are not vetted, they thrive uncorrected and unaddressed. The casualties can be trust, collaboration, innovation, and even talent retention. You don’t need a formal 360 to (in)validate silent assumptions. Just take a few minutes to respectfully review different stakeholders’ unspoken assumptions about a shared work stream, about role expectations, or about assorted priorities. The resulting illumination makes work easier, more enjoyable, and more rewarding for many. What a great gift to bring to your team to start off 2019!

OK, I May Not Be a Comedian, But…

 I’ve always admired great comedians, and not just because they make me laugh. Masterful comedy is a lot like great leadership.
Here are some of the shared attributes of great comedians and great leaders:
  • They know that their work is personal — they speak their own truth from their unique perspective, not generic viewpoints that feel flat.
  • They draw you in with great storytelling that includes intentionally shared details, and also can improvise in the moment, fully attuned to the situation.
  • They get to the point — clear punch lines, clear take-aways, no fluff.
  • They surprise and challenge you, and sometimes make things a bit uncomfortable –They know that boredom is poison.
  • They show courage. They choose a viewpoint, take some risks, and escalate their stance without worrying about not being enough or what not to say.
  • Some of their best “bits” are around questions no one else asks and that they cannot answer on their own.
  • Finally, they don’t take themselves too seriously. That makes the rest of us feel safe being ourselves. And it makes us want to be around them.

I love watching and listening to great comedians and improvisers. Since I’m not talented enough to be a pro myself, I’ll keep channeling what I see and learn into my coaching work with leaders.

What To Do When You Have a “Low Battery”

Do you know when your mind is running on a low battery? And – importantly – what to do about it? This question popped in my head recently when my ever-so-smart phone notified me of its own “Low Battery” and offered me an optional “Low Power Mode”. Since my own energy was running low at that time, I thought this was especially brilliant. A refresher lesson on resilience!

The first step to managing yourself with low energy is to recognize the signals. If you’re like me, your common clues may include: Simple decisions becomes difficult, attention span diminishes, patience wanes, normal organizational tricks lapse, and my thinking can become stubbornly rigid. You likely have your own cues.

The second step is to decide what recharging activities will yield the fastest and most valuable energy boost. For me, some combination of running, walking, yoga, sleep, and fun time with people I enjoy are the best way to restore me to my 100% best self. (TV is tempting, but not on the good list.) Depending upon the causes of my “battery drain”, I can give myself a booster shot in 30 minutes. I just have to remember how easy that is – and make the time without delay.

Third, you need to decide what trade-offs you can make for a day or so, so that you can turn off some of your functionality and operate on “Low Power Mode”. I try to enlist the following tactics: defer major decisions and sensitive conversations at least a day, break down complicated activities to bite size steps, seek out helpful thought partners more than usual, and choose a couple of moderate tasks to fully complete for the sense of accomplishment.

Resilience is about making the best of all you bring over the long haul. Intentional trade-offs and recovery periods are a key element for that end game. I’d be curious to hear your favorite tactics and encourage you to take them out of your tool box more often. I’m trying to do the same.

Do More of What the Best Teams Do

An increasing amount of research explains some patterns that I’ve observed for many years as a team facilitator. Specifically, the teams that generate the most valuable insights in defining their challenges and the best solutions to their problems are observably different in their interactions from teams that spin their wheels or are mediocre on performance and outcomes. Specifically, on the strong teams, ideas flow more freely from all members and more ideas are put on the table as input to any challenge.
The recent research of Alison Reynolds and David Lewis, two business school professors in the UK, analyzed the characteristics most strongly correlated with strong team problem-solving. And they pinpoint two underlying ingredients: Team members’ psychological safety(to express concerns, share differing views, ask questions, admit mistakes, put hierarchy aside, etc. without negative consequences) and cognitive diversity (intentionally assembling people with differing backgrounds, work experiences, thought processes, skills, organizational perspectives and priorities. You can read the full Harvard Business Review April 2018 article here.
Try injecting a bit more psychological safety and cognitive diversity into the teams and meetings you manage. Small steps add up, and you need not be the head honcho to propose them.  Some examples are:
  • Explicitly invite fresh perspectives to the table and give them the platform to share candid views on a topic (e.g., someone impacted by your team’s work but not on your team)
  • Ask junior staff to prepare and present their perspective on an issue as the starting point to a problem-solving discussion — encouraging them to boldly think beyond existing management assumptions
  • Declare your meeting up front as hierarchy-neutral, exploratory and safe for unpopular views; then walk that talk, calling out any critical or controlling behavior
  • When folks narrow in on a solution very quickly, ask them to generate and compare two more options before making a decision
  • Close out a meeting by reaffirming the value of and protection of differing viewpoints and new untested ideas; celebrate the specific bold ideas that prove valuable.
Invent your own ways to create safe spaces for more diverse views and let me know what happens.

A Little Consistency Goes a Long Way!

The new year is the season for setting ambitious goals. Declaring aspirations about new skills and new achievements may serve you well. But there’s another approach that may be more accessible and more valuable to you professionally: Pick a couple of things you already know how to do well and that your organization values, and simply aim to do them well more consistently. That increased consistency may be about frequency, about style, about rigor, about listening, about emotions… or anything else that influences your impact on others.

Whatever you contribute when you do something that is especially valued – such as coaching your colleagues, preparing presentations, meeting deadlines, guiding creative thinking… wouldn’t there be a positive ripple effect in your organization if folks got MORE of that at the same level of quality? Wouldn’t clarity, alignment and performance be strengthened if your stakeholders experienced a more consistent, predictable version of you? Consistent behavior – when it is valued behavior — also cultivates trust, reduces misunderstandings and enables safe organizational learning.

Someone once said “Consistency is better than rare moments of greatness.” I fully agree! Where is valuable consistency accessible to you with just a little more discipline?

How Lazy Is Your Brain with First Impressions?

He didn’t need CPR. But my client felt like the wind was knocked out of him by a senior executive’s dismissive behavior. I’ve recently watched several coaching clients who are great contributors get discouraged because they were on the receiving end of a seemingly unfair, unexplained judgment. It’s an exhausting distraction.

We all make snap judgments. (I’ve been catching myself in the act lately.) The scientific explanation is that our brains have so much information continuously coming in that categorizing our observations is a necessary short cut. It allows us to form opinions and decisions at an acceptable pace. But we pay a steep price when we don’t check up on assumptions about the capabilities of colleagues. Every negative categorization – including subconscious ones – can play out as self-fulfilling, with a detrimental impact on both team performance and individual engagement.

Which of these common short cut assumptions trip you up?

  • Someone who speaks very differently from me probably isn’t as thoughtful or smart as I am (e.g., a regional accent, faster/slower pace, more/less precise)
  • Someone who isn’t “put together” (by my subjective standards) probably isn’t a sharp or organized thinker (e.g., physical appearance, mannerisms, posture)
  • Someone who seems “more sensitive” (by my subjective standards) probably cannot handle a tough conversation that we should have

If you picked at least one such offense that you commit, can you identify the specific individual who is most impacted by your short cut? Then, in your next few interactions, ask a few more questions, bring a bit more patience, and seek out fresh learning from them.

[Note: Some of our most pervasive and damaging mental short cuts involve unconscious bias around race and gender. That is too large a topic to do justice here. But you can always try on your own to self-assess and adjust your thinking.]

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.