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Posts from the ‘Self/other awareness’ Category

Bring Your Humanity To Work

Something happens to us as we age (besides all the aches and pains!). We forget, rewrite, “dis-remember”, ignore or otherwise change the narrative to our own life stories. A hard beginning turns into “not that bad”. A perfect family turns into “I had plenty of hard times too”. There are fewer nuances and more absolutes and denial. By the time we are well into our careers, we have forgotten about many of the life experiences that gave us our membership cards into the human race. Those cards that are good at any organization regardless of background, race or gender. Those cards that define what we all have in common.

We have all felt “less than”. Maybe you were the smallest in your class or not very athletic or crappy at math or from a poor family. You were teased or ostracized at school. Or you were compared to an older sibling who was so much better than you were. You struggled to make friends because you felt too different because of circumstances far beyond your control. Feeling less than became seared into your psyche.

We have all felt like we just didn’t fit in. There was always an in crowd and you didn’t meet the criteria. Or you actually did meet the requirements but it didn’t match how you felt inside. Or there was something “different” about your family; a chronically depressed mother or alcoholic father or the non-dominant religion of your neighborhood or a sibling that died. You didn’t have vocabulary for this then but you just knew that when you went to your friend’s house to play, it wasn’t anything like your home. Instinctively you understood that it wasn’t a good idea to invite friends to your house.

We have all battled insecurities and fears. Whether born from reality, imagination or normal development, growing up means facing constant testing of self worth and self confidence. Am I smart enough to pass the test? Will I have a date for the prom? Will I get into college? Why are all my friends better and smarter than I am? Everyday is groundhog’s day as we attempt to calm those inner voices.

We all have dreams. When I grow up…. I will overcome all these worries and challenges and be so awesome! I’ll make enough money to own a house and buy one for my mom, too. I’ll discover something amazing that will help all of humanity. I’ll get out of this shit-hole-of-a-town and never look back. I’ll have a “normal” family. There is a time and place on the horizon that will be so much better. Or we will replicate exactly all the wonderfulness that was our childhood by moving next door to mom and dad.

We all excel at some things and not others. We were too young without enough life experience or context to know that no one was good at everything all the time. Still, we looked at those around us and believed that was absolutely true about those superstars we compared ourselves to. If we soared at math but couldn’t conjugate german verbs we graded ourselves as inferior. If we were great writers but lousy basketball players, we sucked. In time, we all come to appreciate that everyone, including ourselves, do some things really, really well. Maybe even better than others.

We are more fortunate than someone else. We have no control over where or to whom we are born (unless you understand reincarnation). It’s just the luck of the draw that I grew up in Detroit with the family I landed in and you are from your clan in London. We had different circumstances and experiences because of these random beginnings. No matter how badly things went down for either of us, we will encounter loads of people who had it so much worse than we did. We don’t understand this while we are growing up except for all those refrains to finish what was on our plates because there were starving people in Africa. It takes leaving the familiarity of home to understand that people had it better and much worse than we did.

These are just a few universal truths about the human condition that have the potential to allow empathy and compassion to emerge in each of us. But too frequently we forget about these formative experiences once we are doing well in our professions. Once we have attained a level of success it tames our inner worries and what replaces it is a callousness that separates us from our humanity. What happens next, I believe, is sad and preventable.

We twist those memories of feeling less than and not fitting in into revenge fantasies. Where we once felt so dejected, we now play the part of bully and coolest, smartest kid. As leaders and team mates, we make others feel like shit because we never want to be the runt again. We use our position or power or just nastiness to subject people to the same mistreatment we experienced so long ago. From one angle, it can be seen as a triumph over past wounds and feelings of powerlessness. From another, it is becoming the hated tormentor of the past to avoid any further pain.

Fears and self doubt have a funny way of showing up in adulthood. For some of us, the dialogue in our heads is exhausting! Pick your words carefully, don’t be too aggressive, don’t be too passive, speak up early and often, ask for forgiveness instead of permission. We can self monitor 24/7 in an attempt to talk away our anxieties, to look and sound smart, to be better than others, to never let them see us sweat. When this doesn’t work we get defensive, go on attack or withdraw. These are only slightly more sophisticated coping mechanisms than the ones we used as kids.

It is uncanny how much we still hunger to conform/fit in and it is no surprise that most companies are set up for just that. The norms favor stereotypical white male behaviors so heaven help the rest of us who don’t fall anywhere near that map. We hide those stories, beliefs or traits that make us different or unique; growing up poor, the death of a parent, dyslexia we overcame, living a life of extreme comfort, missing a year of school because of a serious illness. If people of color and women could transform into white men it would be so much easier to erase all those barriers!

Our childhoods are spent yearning to fit in and be like everyone else. We bust into adulthood intent on becoming our own unique person and standing out from the crowd. Organizations allow for only a certain amount of nonconformity so we are back to the same dilemma: how do I fit in around here.

What we don’t have as children that we do have as adults is a very sophisticated brain that is capable of complex thoughts, self reflection, analysis and rationality. Do we want to connect to others in the company from a place of shared humanity or do we want to replay old tapes? In the early version of the story we were small or victims or left out. In the sequel, we become the victors (or Vice Presidents). Like all superheroes, we can use our powers for good or evil. We can see each colleague as valuable, with an interesting tale of ups and downs, with big dreams and some crazy skills. Or we can see people as representatives of all our past hurts and take a turn in the bully-pulpit to exact our revenge.

We all have a choice about how we want our stories to evolve. Do you say to yourself each morning as you roll out of bed, “I want to operate from a place of compassion in hopes of getting great work done today”? Or do you sound more like Brain when Pinky asks, “What do you want to do today, Brain?” “Take over the world!”

Monologues and Dialogues

Pop quiz. Which would you rather….

  • Sit in an hour long meeting just listening or speaking up when you have something to say?
  • Being told by your boss how you are performing or having a conversation about how things are going?
  • Work on a team with a leader who doles out directives or contributing to the planning and shaping of the project?
  • Attend a conference where you soak up the expert’s wisdom or having a chance to ask her questions?

Chances are you would rather be more engaged but you still appreciate taking in information too. If you scored yourself “it depends” then you see this as situational. Good answer. But I guarantee that most of us spend way too much time on the receiving end of a monologue that we are desperate to shut off. “Make it stop” is what we are screaming in our heads. Politeness is what we display. After all, we still want a job when this person comes up for air.

Set aside the experts we love to listen to for a TED talk. Think about daily work situations. Remember a time (probably 5 minutes ago) when someone dominated a conversation; s/he cut others off, talked over people, didn’t ask a single question, displayed arrogance or aggression. What did you make of this behavior? This person is insecure, loves a good fight, has no emotional intelligence, needs to be the smartest person in the room, needs to show you that s/he is the authority on the topic, is just a royal pain in the ass? It doesn’t actually matter which of these conclusions are true. It is more about the lasting impression this person leaves. We will ascribe all kinds of crazy to him/her. And we will try to minimize our time with him/her. The reason: grown-ups and professionals do not appreciate monologues when dialogue would be so much more effective.

Monologues have the impact of cutting off conversation. Almost all work is more dynamic and productive when there is dialogue; the back and forth exchange of ideas and questions to arrive in new spaces that weren’t there at the beginning of the conversation. Monologues don’t go anywhere. The language tends to be “I this” and “you need to that”. It is experienced as condescending and frustrating. When you try to interrupt the lecture with questions or different opinions, you quickly realize this is fruitless or painful. “You don’t know what you are talking about” or the person not even acknowledging that you have spoken.

People who see themselves as The Expert or The Smart One favor monologues. What could we lowly knuckleheads offer? Of course, this masks insecurities and comes off with loads of arrogance. Sadly, they don’t appreciate that most of us know that the smartest among us never have to broadcast it.

Some people prefer to be constantly in charge and in control of the environment; further signs of psychological vulnerabilities. This presents a dilemma for everyone else who is hungry for collaboration and shared responsibilities.

The bottom line for those who are more comfortable delivering monologues and cutting off all conversation is that they have low tolerance for being challenged. They fear being diminished or stupid or unable to respond to a new thought. Their anxieties loom larger than any likely reality so their behavior persists. It’s a shame, really.

The ability to engage in a lively dialogue can be the envy of these one-way communicators. A good leader asks questions, is curious about others and their ideas, enjoys riffing and generally finds other people interesting. They have a ton of experience that indicates that conversations and debates yield better solutions, ideas and outcomes. They also know that professionals are more satisfied under these circumstances.

If you are someone who struggles with dialogues, get some help. Engage a coach or mentor who can teach you some of these skills. If you sense that this is a life-long pattern that taps some deeper sore spots, get a therapist. Chances are your friends and family don’t enjoy this behavior any more than your colleagues do. Something is holding you back from truly connecting with others. Figure out what that is and fix it. Work (and life!) will be so much richer and more fulfilling if you do.

The Understated Leader: Part Three

There are hidden gems in all our organizations. They are the people who consistently do great work, play well with others, ask good questions and listen attentively. What they don’t do is make a lot of noise. That is not part of their DNA. It’s a shame that those horn blowers suck up our attention. We end up missing out on amazing stuff happening all around us.

I’ve written here https://getrealleadership.com/2014/12/22/the-understanded-leader-contd/ and here  https://getrealleadership.com/2013/09/03/a-great-example-of-an-understated-leader/ about The Understated Leader in the past. This is a low ego, highly collaborative and not flashy person who is productive and admired. For this post I want to focus on two key strengths these folks have that all organizations need so much more of: leading effective teams and facilitating innovation.

Take a look around your organization and identify those teams that work especially well. They are energized, flexible and crank out good results. You see the members collaborating easily, laughing and getting down to business. They are proud of small and big wins and examine setbacks. What would you say about the formal leader of this type of team? What behaviors do you observe?

Understated leaders tend to manage teams by:

  • Guiding rather than directing or inserting themselves
  • Assuming the collective skills and knowledge of the members will get the job done
  • Being a resource rather than a driver
  • Asking loads of questions to draw out the ideas of the members
  • Facilitating team feedback and reflection
  • Deferring praise away from self and onto the team

These leaders have a fundamental belief that the best work gets done through teams of people. They coach members about how to work well together and are reluctant to intervene when things get jammed up. They value both the interpersonal skills required to collaborate as well as the improved problem solving and outcomes when more heads are in the game.

Shift focus now to how creativity and innovation take place at your organization. Are there people with special roles for that job? Is everyone responsible for it? Are some leaders more prone to new ideas and new ways of doing things while others take the “if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it” approach? Does innovation happen unexpectedly or is it baked into the way the business is conducted? Are some staff frustrated with the lack of invention while others feel constant pressure to be creative?

When it comes to Understated Leaders, you will often see them approach innovation in these ways:

  • Challenge teams to go further, push the envelope, anticipate what happens down the road
  • Look for the best answers and input rather than the easiest or quickest or cheapest one
  • Anticipate people’s responses to the new thing and plan for the transition
  • Entrust teams to solve big issues rather than select one or two subject matter experts
  • Tap people from across and up and down the organization to invent something new or solve problems
  • Pose challenging questions for the team to address rather than take over the process

Much like their point of view about teams, these leaders know from repeated experience that answers to tough issues do not start and stop with themselves. They may feel ultimately accountable but they do not feel that they alone can solve the problem or identify what the next new thing should be. They are adept at framing the challenge, encouraging expanded thinking and new inputs and helping the team reflect on what is/is not working.

Clearly, leading teams and leading innovation require similar skill sets. And Understated Leaders are particularly proficient in these areas. It is this humble, engaging, facilitative and challenging style that works so well.

But what do you see when you look around your organization at the state of both team work and innovation? Probably a smattering of Understated Leaders but mostly more traditional leaders. I define traditional leaders as: out front, take charge, results driven, declarative statements, direction setting, strong presence. You know, the stuff we all read about in the management literature. There is a time and a place for traditional leadership, that’s for sure. But when it comes to teams and innovation, a very different style is more effective.

And here is where the rub is. We pay way more attention to traditional leaders than we do to the quieter ones. Both may raise their hands but we gravitate towards the noise. Both may get results but a closer look will usually reveal a more productive process and more stimulated and enabled staff with the Understated Leader. Both leaders may praise their teams’ accomplishments but only one will do that without ever using the word “I”.

For those of you who are in the position to dole out great assignments, I urge you to open your eyes and ears to the folks all around you who are not tooting their own horns. Listen to what staff say about working with various leaders. Pay attention to the level of engagement and enthusiasm or pressure and anxiety staff feel. Look under the hood of the reported results; make sure you blow away all the smoke and mirrors to see what is really there.

Rather than always gravitating towards the obvious shiny objects take a chance on the more hidden luminous assets.

 

Is It Caution, Resistance or Differences? Reactions to Change

Why does one person rejoice and another one feel dread when change is afoot? Why does a leader drag his heels while the staff is pushing for change? Why does a team stage a revolt when a new leader comes on board? Why do some people just sit back and hope to wait out the latest initiative?

Few things will evoke more “stupid human tricks” than responding to change efforts. Most of us are wired to feel cozy with homeostasis; it mirrors our biological imperative. Our companies, however, have a knack for upsetting that balance. That sets off our own idiosyncratic reactions. Understanding some typical patterns in ourselves and those we lead can help us figure out how to interpret and manage the dynamics.

Which category do you fit in? What about your staff?

  • “The CEO just doesn’t understand.” These people have usually been around for awhile and have done a thorough factor analysis to point out that a) this is not cost effective or b) it will damage the business or c) people will get hurt or confused or disengaged or a whole host of other terrible things. If only the leader had consulted more people (sic. ME) then s/he would clearly understand that this is a very bad idea.
  • “I respectfully disagree.” A variation on the first group, these are objective thinkers with low ego needs. They have studied the situation and simply have a different opinion about the best course forward. They may actually welcome some parts of the change but their problem solving brains lead down different tributaries and they believe their analysis is a stronger one.
  • “We’re fine as we are.” Leaders and/or staff exclaim that there is nothing to see here, everything is going fantastically well and no change is necessary. These are people who struggle to absorb the facts on the ground; poor earnings, market loss, dissatisfied customers and other relevant metrics. Like an ostrich, they prefer their heads in the sand.
  • “You’ve got to be friggin’ kidding!!” Open hostility with a tinge of self righteousness and arrogance; always a fun crowd to deal with. This is not the same as push back, which is more polite and rational. These folks get nasty and make this personal although it is often hard to know exactly why that is. Where does that rage come from?
  • “Yippee! This will be so fun.” Thank the heavens for those who truly enjoy changing things up. They often see the benefit of doing things differently, like learning new stuff and have a view that if you aren’t changing then you aren’t keeping ahead of the pack. They are not just early adopters; they are flexible, open minded and adventurous.
  • “My mouth says yes but the rest of me says no way.” Most people fit into this category. They want to be good sports and have some appreciation for the rationale for change but they struggle mightily to get comfortable with it. They would rather stay in their comfort zones and don’t like the unsteadiness that comes with doing new things. They take one step forward and two steps back as they slowly inch themselves towards inevitable disruption.
  • “Please leave me alone.” If I just ignore this, maybe it will go away. These are often more introverted folks who focus on self mastery. Imposed changes upset their ecosystems and they can become semi-paralyzed. They keep doing their work but resist the change until they realize there is no choice.

As you can see, some people are more cautious or uncomfortable with change. Others can’t get enough of it while some prefer to ignore it altogether. Some people have a different rational opinion while others are just emotional spewers. As leaders, we are quick to lump everyone together and label it resistance but that isn’t accurate. Simpler, yes, but not correct.

If we see everyone as resistant, we will just use the hammer. But we can’t take out 20 different tools so we don’t just see all those nails. I suggest that leaders do three things across the board that will address the needs of this cast of characters.

  • Acknowledge differences right up front. You are launching a new organization structure. In your initial communications (and for the first few months of implementation) speak about the range of reactions you expect from enthusiasm to skepticism to complete disagreement. Tell the staff there is room for all these emotions because each person has a unique way of integrating new behaviors and arrangements. That’s okay. You want people to remain professional and civil so any venting or feedback needs to be delivered with positive intentions of supporting the movement forward. We humans want to know that we are not invisible; that our thoughts or feelings are heard. Signal that you do and you will hear them.
  • Explain the Why repeatedly. Most leaders breeze over this in favor of getting into the What details. Sure, each of us wants to know What is changing for me. But we are more likely to withstand the discomfort of change if we have a clear understanding about Why we are being asked to do this. (“Because I said so” does not work well with adults.) If the leader lays out what threats or challenges or opportunities are at the door and Why we need to act now, most people will agree even if they might disagree on this specific plan.
  • Don’t tolerate saboteurs. There will always be a small group of people who will act badly to undermine the success of the change effort. It might look passive aggressive or overt. It might be an individual or an angry cabal. We all know who those folks are and we have difficulty gauging how much real power they have to tear things apart. But we know we can’t stand being in the same room with them. As leaders, we must cut these people off. They need to know they must play nice or else. And you need to follow through on the “or else”. This is when a hammer is appropriate.

We can’t be all things to all people in our organizations. But we can give voice to the normal, human responses to change. It doesn’t matter if I’m slow as molasses and grumpy and you are quick and happy about it. In the end, the change will take place. It’s just that some of us will get there sooner and with less commotion than the rest of us.

How To Stay Clean In A Toxic Environment

Your boss is a nut case. Or your team is dysfunctional. Or your department is at the bottom of the heap. You can smell the stench all around you. It may be easy for you to point to others and their deficiencies but eventually people in the company will assume you are guilty by association. Is it possible to remain above the fray? If so, how can you emerge untouched by the dirt?

Amy joined the marketing department while it was still in transition. It was widely known that the group was broken, dysfunctional and avoided as much as possible. Samir was brought in as CMO with the mandate to fix the team and the function as soon as possible. Amy was one of his first new hires. He told her that the department was in turnaround mode and her skills and attitude would help shape the future. She was up for the challenge because she admired the company and felt that she and Samir were on the same page.

As the newbie, Amy was courted by all the splinter groups. The Back Stabbers couldn’t wait to tell Amy all kinds of crappy things about team members. The Never Ever Samir posse trash talked their boss with a vengeance. The Hallway Whisperers were hellbent on sharing every innuendo without any evidence to back it up. Amy felt dizzy from all the lobbying to join forces with one of these factions. She had moments when she was drawn to this one or that one but her shit detector told her to stay away.

Her resolve to remain detached from these cliques isolated Amy. She struggled to get the cooperation she needed to get her work done and she sensed that she was a target for the underground slams. She considered whether or not to discuss this with Samir but decided not to take that route.

Here is what Amy did instead.

  • Turned her attention to the internal customers. If the marketing function was broken she was going to demonstrate what a talented and responsive partner looked like. She worked closely with the key internal folks to understand their needs and to find clever ways to deliver on her promises. If she couldn’t get the assigned graphic designer to cooperate, she found newer and less tainted ones. If she couldn’t get all the sign offs she needed, she acted anyway and used the customer’s delight to justify her bending of the rules.
  • Made allies with less divisive team members. No matter what the reporting relationships were, Amy reached out to some hidden gems in the department. These were people who did not have a power base or loud voices so they were often ignored. Short of creating a shadow organization, Amy was able to get some remarkable work products done for the customers.
  • Established a “no trash” zone around herself. When she was with internal customers and they wanted to gossip about the marketing folks, she shut it down. When team mates wandered into her office to share the latest dust up, she shut it down. When peers around the building wanted to get the inside scoop, she shut it down. It became a no-win for people who wanted to engage Amy in the bullshit so they stopped trying.
  • Kept tight boundaries in her discussions with Samir. When he asked for feedback about the bad apples, she never offered generic impressions or hearsay. She stuck to her own experiences and described the specific behaviors she encountered. She suggested that Samir get HR involved to gather additional feedback so that people could be more open and the process could be more objective.

Taking this approach, you can probably guess how things turned out for Amy and the department. Yes, she emerged as the go-to person for the internal customers. Yes, the less visible and under-utilized team members began to rise to the surface. Yes, the evil doers were marginalized. They were forced to change their ways or be fired. Samir spent several months having one-on-one discussions with these folks (with help from HR) and two-thirds left the organization. As they were departing, new people were brought on board. And, yes, Amy was eventually promoted.

It is very tough to navigate a toxic environment. Find people who are not crazy or harmful and get the work done with them. In spite of the challenges, be the shining example. Above all, find and strictly adhere to your moral compass. You will be recognized as the exception and will become a magnet for the right stuff. Setting yourself apart from the nuts turns up the contrast on them. And that will be a good thing for you.

Making The Hard Choice: A Profile in Courage

Sometimes it’s not about a perfect leader. Someone who excels at inspiration, has a grand vision, challenges everyone to do great things and all those other wonderful traits we all want in our leaders. Sometimes it just comes down to doing what is right and difficult even when you don’t know if or how it will work out. Sometimes it’s just about seeing the problem and having the courage to jump into the deep end and hoping for the best.

Dahlia is one of those leaders. She is the CEO of a mid-sized nonprofit with a mission to effect legislation and policies pertaining to early childhood education. She is passionate about the work and has successfully influenced state and federal laws and funding. When it comes to running the organization, she is a thoughtful and solid leader but no one would say she sets their world on fire. She is well aware of her shortcomings and has worked hard to develop new skills.

Over time, Dahlia has changed the roles and members on her leadership team to amp up the management of the organization and supervision of the talent. She hired me to help develop the newly configured team so they could function more collaboratively and effectively. Without going into all the gory details, let’s just say Dahlia had pulled together a group of smart and well intentioned people who struggled to play well together. I facilitated a series of team discussions to break down defenses and barriers to join in more collective thinking and actions. It was slow and challenging. The team became impatient with my insistence that we keep peeling away the layers to get to more respectful and trusting encounters. They wanted to solve problems and move on.

In my private discussions with Dahlia, she began to surface her increased awareness of dysfunctional team dynamics and her role in them. I coached her to take risks to be more self revealing and open in hopes the others would follow. And they did, up to a point. It was clear there were two team members who preferred to function in their silos and wanted these sessions to end.

An unexpected catalyst left Dahlia with a tough decision. A vital member of the team suddenly left the organization. This person had a very important function and was the most collaborative of anyone on the team. He shared with Dahlia that one factor in his decision was the lack of cooperation from these two team members. He simply had enough. This confirmed Dahlia’s assessment; until these two people had a change of heart no amount of team discussions were going to improve the situation.

We discussed how to proceed. Private one on ones, a team come-to-Jesus meeting, fire one or both of them, some combination of all of them. There were many larger, organizational considerations: filling key functional gaps, destabilizing the staff, derailing projects, creating more departures, making the team’s dysfunction more apparent to all. We talked and talked, testing out each option.

I must admit that in my head I knew the right thing to do. But I thought it was too risky so I kept offering safer options. In the midst of one of these conversations Dahlia simply said, “I think what needs to happen is to bring this to the team for resolution. If we still can’t come together for the good of the agency after all the work we have done, then I will need to make some very serious changes.” Dahlia chose the risky, and right, option. This was a team problem and the team needed to get its act together.

Dahlia was never clearer or more forthright when she began the next meeting. “We have been working for months to let go of our individual agendas and act as a united leadership team to serve the organization. We have failed as a team. Alan’s departure is our evidence. Unless we can collaborate effectively we will fail the whole organization. I fear we already have. We are going to roll up our sleeves, say the hard stuff that has not yet surfaced, figure out how we are going to proceed without Alan and sort out what we are going to tell the staff. Anyone who is not up to the task, can leave now. Anyone who does not step up to do the right thing will be asked to leave.”

Long story short: one person got the message and was able to shape up and the other person was removed. The leadership team turned a corner and accelerated the path to well coordinated collaboration. The conversations were difficult at first but eventually everyone experienced the benefits of saying the hard things, abiding by a set of new and more functional norms and not feeling so isolated from each other. The staff was anxious at first with all the leadership changes but came to experience the new energy and support of the leaders. It took five months from the moment of Alan’s departure for all the changes to settle in and for the organization to stabilize.

For Dahlia, life got much easier. She had a functional leadership team that she trusted to co-manage the organization and staff. She kept taking risks to try new leadership behaviors because she was less uncomfortable and had a big win under her belt. She worried less about losing other key talent. She even got to a place where she was grateful that the crisis had kicked her in the pants.

As for me, I learned a good lesson too. Don’t underestimate the courage of a reserved, decent leader. With so many other bolder leaders I never hesitate to push them to put themselves and their teams on the line for the greater good. I had acknowledged loads of growth in Dahlia but wasn’t sure she was ready to call the team out and address all the defenses and bad behavior. I will remember this with the next Dahlia I meet.

Can You Lead People Without Understanding People?

What do these things have in common? The new technology is ready to launch and there is push back from the staff. The CEO has been explicit with the executive team about creating a more inclusive culture and the message falls on deaf ears. The marketing team has presented the new branding approach and the CEO tears it up. The operations team receives the lowest customer satisfaction ratings yet insists that everything is going great. The CTO complains that his terrible 360 feedback is simply sour grapes. The employee engagement survey highlights a lack of confidence in the senior team and the executives gloss right over it.

Wrong strategy? Wrong implementation plan? Wrong communication process? Maybe a little of all those things but the common thread is: people. We are funny creatures, we human beings. We will go to great lengths to ignore any input that differs from our own sense of just how fantastic we are. We will dig our heels in when asked to change because we do love our comfort zones. We will outright reject criticism to fortify our fragile egos. At the heart of organizational and leadership effectiveness is skill and insight about what makes people tick.

Sadly, most of us only get on-the-job training about human behavior. And by on-the-job I mean living life. As we move through school, friendships, families, jobs and communities we encounter lots of people. We have experiences that shape how we see ourselves and those around us. In the best case scenario, we have a propensity towards self reflection, listening to others and seeing people in all their nuance and complexity. The norm, however, is to lock into an image of ourselves as we wish to be seen and to simplistically categorize others. This is a unique challenge in the workplace. Whereas we might work hard to create a great relationship with our spouse, we don’t have that same commitment with our colleagues. When a spouse says, “You aren’t listening to me” we will dig deep to focus better and absorb the message. When a direct report says the same thing we might counter with, “I don’t think you are hearing me!”

So if you don’t have any formal training (courses, therapy, coaching) how can you develop some understanding about human beings including yourself?

  • Do some learning. Read books on human development and behavior. Attend seminars, spend a week at the Center for Creative Leadership, seek out the regular guidance of a professional expert. Watch and study people who excel at human interactions. Commit to a course of disciplined action just like you would if you suddenly decided to learn how to play the piano.
  • Set on a path of self reflection. Developing the habit of taking a step back to review your actions and underlying motives will sound like belly button gazing to many of you. But understanding others begins with understanding ourselves. Quinn, Kouzes and Posner are business writers who do a good job of speaking to business people on this topic. They even have workbooks you can use to ponder their questions. It’s a start.
  • Get help. Okay, this is coming from a former therapist. A good therapist or coach provides a safe and supportive place to say out loud all those things that have been swirling around inside you that block your growth. At the same time you will be getting help understanding other people’s behavior. Having an objective expert in human development and behavior whispering in your ear and listening to you is invaluable.
  • Practice new skills in safe settings. Once armed with some insight and ideas about what new things you want to try, find safe people and places to experiment. A good friend, a trusted colleague, a family member. Ask for feedback and suggestions for improvement. You are trying to develop new muscles so think of it like going to the gym. You need to push yourself a bit without injury to yourself or others.
  • Ask for forgiveness as you take it live. One of my extremely introverted CEO clients preferred staying locked in his office over engaging publicly with the staff. After months of discussion he was ready to come out of his cubby hole. At the all staff meeting he announced, “I have received the feedback about how I am always behind a closed door and that you want me to be more accessible. I am terribly shy and socially awkward but I am committed to trying some new things. So if you see me wondering the halls or cafeteria like a lost puppy, please be kind and help me out.” It was so endearing and the staff couldn’t have been more supportive.
  • Ask, don’t assume or guess. Someone raises his voice with you and it sets off alarms. Is he mad at me? Is he just mad? Is this passion about the task? Is he trying to exert some influence to go in a different direction? And even before you get through your whole list of thoughts you probably return the favor and raise your voice. Remember, we are apes originally and we do imitate. When you hit those panic moments take a breath and ask him what’s going on. “Why are you raising your voice?” This serves two purposes: it alerts the person that he has shifted gears (which he may not be aware of) and you don’t have to read his mind.

When we have overdeveloped technical skills but limited interpersonal skills we are only using half of our capacity and that other half is critical to effective leadership. The probability of using analytic, intellectual, technical thoughts and methods to understand self and others is very high. But it is also wholly insufficient. Good head skills are useful but they need to be paired with good heart skills.

It seems so odd to me that it is not mandatory to take courses on human development and behavior before you enter the work world or take a leadership role. Nutty idea, I know, but if people will always be the engine for accomplishing organizational goals don’t you think we ought to develop some knowledge in this area? Play it in reverse: would you go to a doctor who has amazing interpersonal skills but very limited medical know-how. Seriously?

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