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, when we “zoom in” too much with excessive focus on a problem at hand, and blind ourselves to useful and encouraging information, such as: What is still working well?…. Who can help with this problem?…. Will this issue work itself out in a few days?

Whether you’re able to do this habitually in your professional life or it requires a large dose of intentionality, the choice is yours: Either keep your perspective at “zoom in” as the default, and focus anxiously on the most intense part of every challenging situation, or zoom out regularly to put challenges in more accurate perspective, to find your footing, and see more options. When you take in the whole landscape, and still zoom in on particular situations briefly as needed, you can bring a better informed and more emotionally grounded mindset to your work.

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. I did also hear suggestions around improvement opportunities, and I noticed that some respondents were greater fans than other. But what an amazing boost to one’s sense of self and of purpose to know that a few respected colleagues think you generally do an amazing job in certain aspects of your work! How often do managers hear such encouraging feedback as they help their teams mediate disagreements, manage setbacks, and juggle the competing agendas of their stakeholders? How often do YOU hear the good stuff – about what you are doing very well, and the distinctive ways in which you are generating value for your organization? Are you overdue for a read on collective perceptions? Generally, the more senior a manager is, the less frequently explicit feedback (praise and appreciation, as well as criticism) will reach him or her.

Subjecting oneself to a 360 review takes courage. Sometimes the feedback is extremely tough to take, and we must be open to learning from constructive criticism and revealed blind spots as well as embracing the positive. But the upside of hearing authentic praise echoed by multiple people in terms of strengthened confidence and commitment is tremendous. The best 360 feedback processes in my experience are elegantly simple, not excessively tailored, involve a truly neutral facilitator/coach to help with the debrief, and are fully confidential (not part of performance evaluations). It’s a modest investment in leadership development and talent retention worthy of periodic consideration.

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 communications 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. Andy now better explains his thought process, expresses more genuine appreciation, and tailors his approach for different personalities.

— A young client I’ve coached had a very different problem. Her messages never left the ground. Claire was so tentative and unsure of herself that she envisioned all of the potentially valuable suggestions and requests that she could initiate as likely “crash landings.” She simply couldn’t see past her extreme discomfort asserting herself to believe that her input might be well received. Her remedy has simply been to practice. She’s made great progress by starting with modest opportunities to interject her ideas and by running through those conversations in advance. The result is usually win/win with mutual understanding and no strain on her work relationships (sometimes there is a net gain!).

— A third client is a strong communicator who executes perfect “landings” on all her usual communication routes – with the stakeholders who know her best. But in order to advance to the C level, this executive needed top leaders who did not see her regularly to have a better impression of her effectiveness; they were not giving her the benefit of the doubt via the early impressions and little exposure they had. Her no-nonsense, direct style were misinterpreted as cold until one saw what a loyal (and fun) colleague and supportive manager she was. So we co-invented some types of interactions to address this perception gap and demonstrate certain attributes more explicitly.

What types of landings do you experience most frequently? Can you check out how your communications are received by your most important target audiences? If you slow down and look, you may find clues. Do the responses you get “match” your intentions? The foolproof tactic is simply to ask folks to paraphrase back to you their understanding of what you’ve conveyed, and listen for and correct any misunderstandings and unwanted emotional reactions.

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.

I recently read (at www.slate.com) about research by Princeton psychologist Eldar Shafir and Harvard economist Sendhil Mullainathan. Their varying studies confirmed that when people feel that their time is scarce, they are less creative and their decision-making suffers measurably.  This sense of scarcity (around time) is exactly what we experience when our to-do commitments seem to outsize our available time. We may think we’re creating a fuller life, but in fact, we are limiting ourselves in ways we do not realize.

Excessive to-do lists can paralyze us.  This is a common reason for my coaching clients to seek my help in getting “unstuck.”  And as Shafir and Mullainathan explain, when the list of tasks waiting for us is excessively long, heightening our sense of time scarcity, it takes even more energy to choose something and get started.  The reason for this is that we exert mental energy subconsciously worrying about all the things we are choosing to neglect every time we make a choice to take care of one commitment.  In short, every time we jump into action to complete something, instead of experiencing the pure exhilaration of accomplishment, we also experience the “downer” of having made another trade off.

I have personally experienced another side effect of overly ambitious plans: the longer a task sits on my list, the greater the effort I imagine will be involved to complete it.  This imaginary growth makes me want to put off the task even longer, and, it eventually requires more mental energy than it should to overcome my resistance and get the job done.  I work with very successful executives who relay to me the same tendency; so you are in good company if you also experience this.

So that’s my own New Years resolution:  Put less on my list.  Be a bit more steady and realistic on a daily basis in completing the small and large tasks that lie between me and my desired outcomes.  Work through my list with greater focus, confidence, and enjoyment.  After all, to-do lists are meant to help us lead a “fuller” life, not to deplete our energy, creativity and decision-making.

How does that sound to you?…. Make “less” be your path to “more”.  Scrap the shiny, new ambitious resolutions for sharpened focus, shorter lists and higher quality follow-through.

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.

I recently visited a cutting edge engineering and design firm known for its breakthrough product innovations.  One of their “refuse to lose” company principles offers guidance to professionals in any field:

Generate many ideas — craft a variety of possible solutions to a problem — and quickly weed out the impractical and infeasible ideas to identify the best ones.  And then literally try to break those solutions – don’t get too attached until you’re sure you cannot do better!  The emphasis was on creativity, choice, experimentation, and a refusal to let either process concerns or old assumptions be a constraint.  For example, when the engineers cannot find a piece of equipment that meets their newest specifications, rather than compromise their standards, they refuse to lose.  They either push an equipment vendor to go invent their next generation product for them, or they find a way to build it themselves.

Similarly, I’ve coached executives who successfully reinvented their style of giving performance feedback to fit a new role or new team members rather than force fit a traditional method that was not well-suited to the circumstances.  I’ve also helped clients “refuse to lose” in the face of large challenges that they had previously thought they had to resolve on their own.   They persevered by leveraging their networks and relationships for new insights and innovative solutions.   As with the engineers, when you cast a wide net with your problem-solving, very valuable – but not necessarily intuitive – choices emerge.

If you think about your favorite top athlete, this is what he or she does too:  Push to new edges via resourcefulness, experimentation, and practice.  Could you incorporate the “refuse to lose” mindset into your own approach to work?  Are you fully utilizing the capabilities you (and your team) already have, and at the same time, are you exploring new territory to see what untested capability or solution might emerge?  Perhaps there’s a specific powerful question you can frame that will help you persevere.

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 trustworthy are force multipliers when it comes to getting work done with others and through others. A little trust goes a very, very long way, whatever your starting point.

For example, when I feel I’ve earned the trust of people I respect and am entrusted by them to take on a new, high stakes project, it pumps me up. Between the boost in confidence and the sense of connection that is engendered, I’m ready to give my best effort, perhaps exceeding my own expectations because of the trust placed in me. Have you noticed in your own work how everything about a relationship flows more easily and clearly when there is mutual trust? The defining of roles and goals, discussion of risks and performance, creative endeavors, and so on can occur in the fast lane, with fewer road blocks and misunderstandings.

The trusting disposition of a leader is especially rewarded. With one recent client, his authentic, unconditional trust in a key manager inspired the manager to step up to new challenges in ways that were very valuable to the organization.

On the flip side, I’ve seen a professional’s morale and motivation take a big hit from a single gesture of distrust (even if inadvertent) or a manager’s tendency to “under-trust” – and over-suggest or micro-manage. That perceived lack of trust (even if just a perception) is costly! It becomes a source of what I’ll call interference, undermining the performance and morale of an otherwise dedicated individual.

And perhaps even worse than not expressing sufficient trust in others is any behavior you display that chips away at others’ trust in you.

Clients have shared stories with me about a boss they cannot depend on, a slippery colleague who says one thing and does another, or a staff member who sends mixed signals about their commitment and motives. At a minimum, productivity and engagement suffer; at the extreme, pervasive distrust can drive people to resign from an organization they otherwise care deeply about.

To take stock of your own relationship with trust, ask yourself these two sets of questions:

(1) Are you consistently earning trust? Are you generally reliable, honest, consistent, fair and professional – saying what you’ll do and doing what you say? Or do you give people a reason to second guess you or keep information from you? Can you find any bad habits you need to take care of that might be depleting your “trust account”? Something as simple as staying silent about your intentions (letting others make up the story) can undermine trust in you. Other common tendencies include withholding information, gossiping, springing surprises on people, and avoiding difficult conversations that need to happen. Are you inviting any distrust in these ways? If so, tackle your default behaviors and clean up your act.

(2) Are you inclined to trust others and generously express that trust when they have not given your reason to distrust? Or is it unreasonably difficult to earn your trust? And when you do encounter trust-eroding behavior, do you look for ways to contain the damage and restore trust with clear communications? We rarely control the root cause of someone’s untrustworthy actions. But we have choices around our response, which in turn influences their future behavior.

For example, to salvage an eroding level of trust you may have in someone, you can tell your colleague how his or her behavior is starting to affect you and others. You can also review assumptions and expectations, to assure alignment. You can ask questions about their intentions and their need for support. The alternative is a self-fulfilling downward cycle of expressing more distrust that engenders more distrustful behavior.

You don’t need a super hero’s cape to bring more trust into your workplace. Yet you’ll be everyone’s hero!

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 your own personal development – and who has full rights to version X.0 of “ImprovedSelf.com” – you can copy, borrow or reinvent any behaviors and skills you think will serve you well.  You reap the benefits and no one will sue you.

I’ve been amazed at the career-related reinventions I’ve witnessed – sometimes done quickly and boldly, and sometimes gradually (but still courageously) in just one aspect of life.  Once on the other side of a successful reinvention, however, I think we are quick to forget how much value the changes yielded and what the effort involved.  So, we don’t retain useful lessons that would make future change easier.

If you slow down and step back, you can acknowledge any successful reinventions you’ve already navigated – including seemingly modest but important ones.  You’re probably not a rookie!  Next, think about what aspect of your professional life (or your life as parent, spouse or friend) you’d like to reinvent.  Choose something modest in scope and identify the beliefs you’ll need to shed and replace in order to move into that future self.  What actions can you take to push you into owning those new beliefs?  Here is a sampling of reinvention ideas to get the juices flowing:

  • Gain experience working with a new category of clients or in a new venue
  • Demonstrate to your staff that you really do want to give them autonomy and be less controlling
  • Stop behaving as if you hate networking and are bad at it
  • Be able to declare that you love your job – or at least enjoy 75% of what you do.

Choose just one dimension of reinvention and choose just one experiment to explore.  If you move from Self, version 2.0 to version 2.1, there may be a few bugs at first, but the net improvement is valuable, and just imagine what version 3.0 might hold!  For inspiration, look back at how much better your current self is than version 1.0.

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 carry themselves with a sense of power (as opposed to powerlessness) don’t necessarily ask to be entrusted with power; to some degree, they simply claim it with their body language.  And who wouldn’t want to be able to elevate their influence in this way?

Here is a very easy tip on how you can increase your own power without waiting to be given more power.  (I’m not talking about manipulative power games; I’m talking about the authentic attribute that helps a professional be heard and trusted, helps an athlete perform at their full potential, and helps a leader attract committed followers and take appropriate risks.)

Non-verbal body language can actually be self-fulfilling!  It’s not just an after-the-fact manifestation of existing feelings of power or powerlessness.  Scientific evidence is now emerging to back up the “fake it til you make it” phenomenon that many of us have experienced or witnessed in others.  Recent research shows that simply by holding oneself in open, tall, expansive “power” postures (the kind that project power in front of others), our bodies experience physiological changes that are associated with power, confidence, dominance and risk taking.   If you practice “power poses” for even just a minute or two at a time, you can elevate your body’s level of the dominance hormone testosterone and reduce your level of the stress hormone cortisol.  This combination will in turn yield not just an emotional and cognitive shift in self-perception, but will also lead to behavioral shifts that project real power and cause others to respond accordingly.  Your body position can actually cause your physiological profile to mirror that of a person who already has power (or one who is powerless)!  In short, “fake it til you make it” is an effective, authentic tactic.

So before you walk into a difficult meeting with your boss, or pick up the phone for a dreaded sales call (or fundraising pitch), or deliver a presentation to important stakeholders, practice your own “power posing” in private for a few minutes.  As they say in some sports, “play big” – sit up tall, take up space in all directions, don’t let any part of your body contract, withdraw or hide.  Think about the challenge ahead of you while you maintain your power pose.  In controlled experiments, this power posing ritual consistently led people to adopt the emotional, behavioral and endocrine profile of a truly powerful, highly confident person.  Now it’s your turn to generate some power for yourself.

For more on the scientific evidence on this topic, take a look at this article co-authored by Harvard Business School Professor Amy Cuddy on “Power Posing.”

How to Work On Your Weak Spots Using 360 Feedback

My article below was also published on Task.fm.

When I talk to coaching clients about weaknesses, I use the term “blind spot” as well, because their biggest problems are often in areas where they are not (yet) self-aware and they have no idea how they are perceived. Those unknown weaknesses can be more damaging than the ones they know about. Perhaps their boss does not take the time to tell them, their peers do not have the heart to tell them, and their staff does not have the guts to tell them.

Discovering a blind spot can be even more transformational than addressing a known weakness, because of the rich learning involved. Once revealed, a blind spot can be addressed; it may or may not be a serious weakness that is difficult to address.

Although no method is perfect, I believe that the best way to learn about your weak spots is through an anonymous 360 evaluation. I have seen 360’s be truly enlightening. Some are skeptical about the quality of conducting a 360 evaluation, but if you follow these guidelines and the tool is implemented properly, it yields invaluable information that can translate directly into professional development and performance improvement in just the right areas.

  • Survey a sufficient number of people (your boss, boss’s boss, some peers, direct reports, and possibly clients or external collaborators) to guarantee anonymity to respondents (excluding the boss and boss’s boss) and a variety of perspectives such that patterns are revealed. But do not cast the net so wide that you include people who do not work with you much and do not know you. Be even-handed, including those you know you work well with and those with whom you have trickier relationships.
  • Be sure to complete the survey yourself, so that you can look for any gaps between your self-assessment and the way others perceive you. Those gaps are the blind spots. The 360 evaluation may also validate known weaknesses that you want to address, and it may reveal strengths you are not acknowledging in yourself. Leaning on your strengths is a great tactic for addressing weaknesses.
  • Have a third party administer the survey. This can be someone in HR but ideally is an external coach. This helps convey that it is a professional development exercise, and not a performance evaluation.
  • A good 360 evaluation usually includes a couple of open-ended questions and does not reduce all the feedback to rating scales. That way, respondents can address strengths and weaknesses that the questions may miss.
  • Management should not use the 360 survey results for performance evaluation purposes. They should use non-anonymous sources for that. The results should be kept confidential and shared only with the individual being profiled and their coach, and not with the boss (unless the individual chooses to).
  • Keep it simple. Long generic lists of detailed questions about job-specific competencies and elaborate reports translate into information overload and may dilute the value of the feedback.
  • A qualified professional (e.g., a coach) should help a manager debrief their feedback, and in particular, keep them from focusing excessively on the negative, especially when the negative feedback is coming from just a few people. There are often circumstantial explanations that put negative feedback in perspective without dismissing it all together. If you “flip” the feedback and focus on your future performance (Marshall Goldsmith calls this “feedforward”), you can stay out of the negative spiral of defensiveness and blaming. You cannot change past behavior or deny current perceptions; you can only influence future behavior and perceptions.
  • Expect the results to be confusing and sometimes internally inconsistent. Look for just a few themes – views that are widely shared. Put aside the rest of the data.
  • When it’s time to craft an improvement plan, choose just a couple of performance gaps to work on. Anymore than that is overwhelming and unrealistic. Look for just a few simple new rituals or experiments in support of each desired improvement, and see how things play out. You may need formal training if a hard skill, like presentation delivery or project management is revealed as a weakness.
  • Do not proceed in a vacuum. Let key stakeholders, like your manager and staff, know what areas you are working to strengthen, so that they are accepting of your experiments and supportive of your improvement efforts. They can continue to give you feedback as you adjust your behavior. Engage a mentor as well, if appropriate.
  • Manage your own expectations. Professional development is gradual. Celebrate your small successes along the way. You won’t be a rock star tomorrow in an area that was a blind spot yesterday.