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.

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.