- 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.
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?
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.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.