Alyson Madrigan and Kate Billing are two people who've taught me something about gratitude over the past few years. Alyson is a friend here in San Francisco I get to see every few months, while Kate is a consultant in New Zealand I've tweeted at but never met, and they've both made an effort to express and share their gratitude for things in life that most of us typically take for granted.
Alyson's nearing the end of a year-long project on #littlejoys, one post each day on something that brought her joy, like a view from a mountaintop in South Africa:
Kate's often posted about #3goodthings, usually accompanied by a photo of a note on which she describes three positive things that happened to her that day. One of my favorites includes 1) "Having our fab bus driver save us from certain death," 2) a "crazy intense thunder, lightning and hailstorm while I'm tucked up," and 3) a memorable Class of '84 reunion. I love it:
The Thanksgiving holiday is a perfect moment to be reminded of Alyson and Kate as I look back on this past year, because it's been a difficult one for me and Amy. We've both dealt with with physical ailments, professional challenges and personal frustrations, and we frequently just wanted 2013 to be OVER.
But while I can certainly get caught up in my mini-tragedies, I'm well aware of all the things I have to be thankful for on this day, which include...
- Waking up without intense pain, a gift I never appreciated until it was taken away from me and, six months later, restored.
- The full (if imperfect) use of four limbs, two eyes, two ears. My knees, my sight and a shoulder are fading, but they still get me through the day.
- A childhood that instilled me with self-confidence and self-compassion.
- The opportunity to enjoy an adult relationship with my parents and to see the world through their eyes.
- Two brothers and their families who I love so intensely, who I am so proud of, whose success and happiness mean more to me than my own.
- An astounding number of teachers and mentors, from high school to post-MBA, who took an interest in my growth and development.
- The opportunity to be of service as a coach, to help others feel more fulfilled and effective in their professional lives.
- My clients and students, who welcome me into such meaningful conversations and who provide a sense of purpose in my own professional life.
- My own coach, Mary Ann Huckabay, who has made the difference in my life at so many important junctures.
- And Amy, without whom none of the rest would matter at all.
The most popular elective at Stanford's Graduate School of Business is formally titled Interpersonal Dynamics, but everyone calls it Touchy Feely. (The school offers the course to 360 students every year, and there are roughly 400 students in each graduating class.) The course is an intensive experiential learning process conducted in T-groups ("T" for "training"), a method developed by German psychologist Kurt Lewin in the U.S. in the late 1940s and popularized in the '50s and '60s by Lewin's proteges, who founded the National Training Laboratory (known today as the NTL Institute) for that purpose.
Each T-group here at Stanford includes 12 MBA students and two facilitators, who not only guide the group as leaders but also participate as members. The course provides a conceptual framework in the form of traditional lectures and readings, but most of the work is done in T-groups, which meet for three to five hours each week.
Group sessions sometimes include formal exercises but typically consist of open, unstructured time in which members switch among discussion topics, giving each other real-time feedback on interpersonal skills and communication styles, with a particular emphasis on emotion. As I've written before...
The class highlights the fact that our interactions with others generate all sorts of feelings that influence how we express ourselves in the workplace and which have a significant impact on our working relationships. If we want to improve those relationships, it's important to be able to better understand, express and manage our emotions and to help others do the same. This doesn't mean just expressing "warm fuzzies" and getting everyone to feel good--far from it. It means taking some risks and being more candid about our feelings--both positive and negative--so we learn more about how we respond to others and how others respond to us.
The course culminates in a three-day retreat that includes 17 hours of T-group time, and we bring in a third facilitator, the "weekend trainer," to help support the group. I first took Touchy Feely as a student at Stanford in 1999, and I first facilitated in the course in 2007--and I've done the course two or three times every year since. But ten days ago I served as a weekend trainer for the first time, and it was a rewarding but also very intense experience--I felt like a novice surfer who was enjoying the ride but was never entirely sure how it would end. I initially distilled what I learned into six tweets, and I've been meaning to expand upon them:
1) Without empathy, no conflict can get resolved. With sufficient empathy, any conflict can get resolved.
I'm reminded of Brené Brown's work on empathy and shame:
Connection is our ability to forge meaningful, authentic relationships with other people. I believe that connection is the essence of the human experience. It is what..gives meaning to our lives. If you think about connection on a continuum...anchoring this end of of that continuum is empathy. It is what moves us toward deep, meaningful relationship. On the other side of the continuum is shame. It absolutely unravels our relationships and our connections with other people... Empathy is about being vulnerable with people in their vulnerability.
When we empathize with others we can envision ourselves in their circumstances and we vicariously experience their thoughts and emotions. This inevitably brings us closer together, even in the midst of conflict, and that feeling of closeness not only makes conflicts easier to resolve but also makes them seem laughable, even absurd.
2) How much pain do we need to see or hear to feel empathy? How can we become more sensitive to others’ vulnerability?
Despite the importance of empathy in resolving conflict, a challenge is that our empathic feelings may not be triggered by mere verbal disclosures or subtle cues. We can easily miss someone's expression of vulnerability, particularly if the conflict has triggered a threat response, which diminishes our capacity to take in and process information.
But we can work to improve our skills in this area. Some recent research and clinical experience suggest that empathy can be learned, and the process involves slowing down, listening more closely, and heightening our awareness of others' emotions and our own. By managing our threat response and sensitizing ourselves to others' vulnerability, we can feel empathy sooner and more strongly.
3) How fully can we express our vulnerability? Especially in a conflict, can we take a risk and be more vulnerable with the other person?
The flip side of this dynamic is that when we express our vulnerability more fully, we make it easier for others to empathize with us. This often feels risky when we're in a conflict, and so we tend to hide our vulnerability--or we disclose it in a sterile, non-emotional way, dampening the facial expressions, tone of voice and other cues that help others sense our feelings.
Here's where we may need to "unlearn" some long-held beliefs about vulnerability and safety. In some cases those beliefs are well-founded--not everyone is equally trustworthy. But when we're habitually over-cautious, we never learn how to calibrate, and any expression of vulnerability feels unsafe and out-of-control. Taking the risk to express vulnerability more fully helps us practice doing so with greater control and allows us to discover who we can trust in a conflict.
4) Intimacy requires deep trust & safety, which are easier to achieve when issues of status and power are acknowledged.
Trust and safety are important not only in resolving conflict, but also in any experience of intimacy, which I've described as "a willingness to make the private public." The more I trust you, the safer I feel with you, the more of my thoughts and feelings I'm willing to share with you. As trust and safety are established, we share more with each other, and a sense of intimacy is created.
But the often unacknowledged elephants in the room are our mutual status and relative power. If you have higher status or more power than I do, I'm less likely to trust you until those differences are recognized. This need not require a diminution of your status or power, merely an acknowledgment that they exist.
5) When I acknowledge my privilege, you’re more likely to acknowledge my individuality.
As a straight, white, married, well-educated, able-bodied, middle-aged American man, I know I lead a privileged existence. The world I live in is run, for the most part, by people who look like me, and as I go about my daily routines I generally feel at home, rarely reminded of my various identities in a way that would make me feel other or unwelcome.
That said, I'm more than just the sum of those identities--I'm an individual, and I want to be recognized as such. But I make it easier for people of other identities to see me as an individual when I also recognize the many privileges I enjoy. What this looks like in practice will vary depending on the situation and the relationship, but the first step is for us to simply be aware of our various identities, the privileges they bring in difference circumstances, and their potential impact on those around us.
6) We can’t avoid mistakes. We can make smaller mistakes & recover from them faster, but the key is repairing when we inevitably screw up.
Working on any of these issues involves taking risks and getting out of our comfort zone, so mistakes are inevitable. I'm not suggesting we should be heedless or fail to take responsibility for our mistakes, but when avoiding mistakes becomes our primary goal we cheat ourselves (and others) of the learning that would result. We need to embrace mistakes as a natural part of any learning process, and to do that we need to loosen the hold of the embarrassment and shame we feel when we make them. We need to adopt a growth mindset with regard to our interpersonal skills and admit that, like everyone else, we're doing the best we can, making it up as we go.
Photo by Mike Baird. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
My latest post at HBR: Learning to Say "No" Is Part of Success.
Many of my executive coaching clients and MBA students at Stanford are going through a transition that involves a step up to the next level in some way. They’re on the cusp of a big promotion, or they’ve launched a startup, or their company just hit some major milestone. Very few, if any, of these people would say that they’ve "made it"; they’re still overcoming challenges in pursuit of ambitious goals. And yet their current success has created a meaningful inflection point in their careers; things are going to be different from now on. The nature of this difference varies greatly from one person to another, but I see a set of common themes that I think of as "the problems of success." I’ll be writing about these issues in a series of posts, of which this is the first.
Thanks to my clients and students for their insights and the opportunity to work with them, and continued thanks to Tim Sullivan for his guidance and encouragement.
We often live out the pattern graphed above--at least I do, and many of my coaching clients and MBA students do as well. If our initial attempts are unsuccessful when advocating for (or against) a position or when seeking to influence others to do (or not do) something, we'd like to steadily and evenly escalate our assertiveness and emotional expressiveness as time progresses (i.e. the dotted blue line).
What we actually do can look quite different. Early in the process we tend to underdo it--we do escalate, but verrrrrrrrry slowly. "That's OK," we say, "it's not that big a deal"--even as our frustration builds. But eventually a switch gets flipped, and our levels of assertiveness and expressiveness increase much more rapidly. Soon we're overdoing it; we're unable to control our frustration, and we act too assertively--even aggressively--and we say or do things we later regret (i.e. the solid red line).
So if we do see our own experience reflected in this graph, how can we make sense of what's happening?
First we need to ask why we're so slow to assert ourselves in this particular context or relationship. It's likely one in which we're at risk of experiencing a social threat--an interpersonal situation that we perceive as threatening in some way. David Rock's SCARF model reminds us that we tend to experience social threats when dealing with people of higher status or from different social groups, in conditions of uncertainty or diminished autonomy, or when our sense of fairness has been violated.
All of these circumstances tend to cause us to act cautiously--and so we underdo it. But that initial reticence makes it more likely that our efforts at advocacy or influence will fail--and so the situation persists as we keep trying the same (cautious) approach. Eventually our impatience overcomes our caution, and we start to escalate.
But by this point our capacity for mental and emotional control, always limited, is running out, and our ability to finely calibrate our behavior or choose our words has been undermined. A misstep on our part or the other party's can easily trigger a threat response, and soon we're experiencing a full-blown "amygdala hijack"; as Daniel Goleman told Tricycle in 2011...
When [neural] circuits [in the amygdala, a region of the brain involved in processing emotion,] perceive a threat, they flood the body with stress hormones that do several things to prepare us for an emergency... Attention tends to fixate on the thing that is bothering us... That means that we don't have as much attentional capacity left for whatever it is we’re supposed to be doing or want to be doing. In addition, our memory reshuffles its hierarchy so that what's most relevant to the perceived threat is what comes to mind most easily--and what's deemed irrelevant is harder to bring to mind. That, again, makes it more difficult to get things done than we might want. Plus, we tend to fall back on over-learned responses, which are responses learned early in life--which can lead us to do or say things that we regret later. It is important to understand that the impulses that come to us when we're under stress--particularly if we get hijacked by it--are likely to lead us astray.
In the graph above this is when we hit the inflection point in the solid red line--our levels of assertiveness and expressiveness shoot skyward, and suddenly we switch from underdoing it to overdoing it.
So what can we do about this? Four suggestions:
1. Assess the situation.
What's the context? What's the relationship? What's the likelihood that we might perceive some dynamic in the situation as threatening? Here Rock's model can be tremendously helpful: look at every situation from the perspective of each party's status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and sense of fairness. When any of those factors are undermined, there's a potential social threat.
2. Recognize our "tells."
Although these biological processes are universal, we consciously experience the stress of a threat response in uniquely individual ways. I get a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, or my hands get sweaty, but you may feel a tightness in the back of your neck or a shortness of breath or a sense of tunnel vision. Just as poker players scan their opponents for "tells"--signs of fear or overconfidence--these physical and emotional signals are the signs that we're in the grip of a threat response.
3. Question our responses.
As Goleman points out, when under stress we tend to revert to responses that we learned early in life--and those responses aren't necessarily helpful when seeking to influence others or advocate for our position effectively. It's essential to determine when our habitual behavior under stress--which probably feels quite natural and familiar to us--is preventing us from achieving our goals and needs to change.
4. Try NOT to underdo it.
I suspect that we eventually overdo it in part because we underdo it at the start. Our reluctance to be more assertive and expressive at the outset ultimately contributes to our over-assertiveness and hyper-expressiveness later on. By being so cautious at first, when we have the greatest capacity to manage our emotions and calibrate our behavior, we miss a critical opportunity to influence and assert ourselves more effectively. I'm not suggesting we should compete aggressively right away in every interaction--I'm a big believer in John Gottman's concept of soft startups. I am suggesting that by being slightly more assertive at the outset--by aiming for the dotted blue line above--we may actually lessen the risk of finding ourselves in a counterproductive confrontation.
My latest post at HBR: Stop Worrying About Making the Right Decision.
Thanks to Stanford's Baba Shiv and Florida State's Roy Baumeister, whose research has heavily influenced my thinking on this topic, and to Scott McNealy, whose seemingly offhand comment 15 years ago pointed me in this direction in the first place.
And continued thanks to Tim Sullivan for his guidance and encouragement.
Pierluigi Pugliese is a software consultant and agile coach whose views on coaching have influenced on my own over the last few years. (I've particularly appreciated learning about the many parallels between agile coaching with developers and executive coaching with leaders.)
Pugliese recently gave a presentation in Prague on The Scrum Master as a Team Coach, and his deck included a diagram similar to the one above. He notes that a coach working with a software development team will play these eight roles, and going a step further, I find this a compelling model for the range of roles that must be played by every leader in any group.
I've re-organized Pugliese's schema by pairing up the roles along four axes, each of which represents a different dimension of leadership behavior, and the definitions below are my own, so don't blame Pugliese if you disagree.
Expert vs. Coach
The primary leader archetypes: the Expert with the answers, whose extensive domain experience is the basis for their authority, and the Coach with the questions, whose expertise lies in helping people discover the answers for themselves.
Evangelist vs. Motivator
Our word "evangelist" derives from the Greek "euangelistes," which means "bringer of good news." The Evangelist is on a mission to spread a message, and their goal is to rally others to their cause. The Motivator is agnostic, seeking to identify others' personal goals and help them move forward in their preferred direction, whatever it may be.
Trainer vs. Mentor
The Trainer is focused on the task at hand and shows others what is to be done (and how to do it better). The Mentor is focused on others' development, and immediate tactical performance is secondary to long-term strategic growth.
Mediator vs. Facilitator
The Mediator seeks to resolve conflict and maintain harmonious relationships in the service of group effectiveness. The Facilitator seeks to maximize learning and ensure that all voices are heard in the service of candor, integrity and authenticity.
Looking over this framework, I'm reminded of a passage from Peter Drucker's Management Challenges of the 21st Century:
Increasingly "employees" have to be managed as "partners"--and it is the definition of a partnership that all partners are equal. It is also the definition of a partnership that partners cannot be ordered. They have to be persuaded...
One does not "manage" people.
The task is to lead people.
And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of each individual. [Emphasis original, pp 17-22]
And of this comment from Bill George:
We need to disavow ourselves of the notion that leadership is power over other people. Leadership capacity is the ability to empower other people to step up and lead.
The better we can fulfill the Coach / Mentor / Motivator roles as leaders, the more effectively we can meet the challenges posed by Drucker and George (and the many others who've expressed similar thoughts in recent decades.)
But that's not to say the Expert / Evangelist / Trainer roles are unhelpful--they're essential leadership tools, particularly early in a group's development or when leading the inexperienced. Note that in Daniel Goleman's research on leadership styles (discussed in his classic HBR article, Leadership That Gets Results), the style with the greatest positive impact on "climate," his term for working atmosphere, is the Authoritative style, which he describes as follows:
An authoritative leader takes a "Come with me" approach: she states the overall goal but gives people the freedom to choose their own means of achieving it. This style works especially well when a business is adrift. It is less effective when the leader is working with a team of experts who are more experienced than he is.
To me the question isn't "What type of leader am I?" but rather "Can I adjust my leadership style to best fit the needs of the situation? Am I flexible and adaptable as a leader? Can I sense what is called for and deliver it?"
Vickie Gray, a coach whose writing caught my attention a few years ago, recently became Learning Manager at the Acadia Centre for Social and Business Entrepreneurship, and she asked if I could recommend any resources. As an Instructor and Leadership Coach at the Stanford Graduate School of Business for the last seven (!) years, I've worked with hundreds of MBAs, and the books, articles and other resources below have been important tools in my efforts to help students develop their leadership and interpersonal skills (and in my private coaching practice as well.)
While I make use of these resources in my work at Stanford and my practice, almost all of them can be applied by a leader or manager within their organizations or by any individual seeking to self-coach.
The list easily could have been ten times as long, and there are plenty of great resources I hate leaving out, but a list of 20 seems more likely to actually get read and be helpful. And while I'm sure most of these are familiar to Vickie, hopefully even someone as experienced as she is will find a few new ones.
It sounds like an insult to call de Botton a "pop philosopher," but I can't come up with a better term, so I've decided to just embrace it. He's a deeply serious thinker, but his writing is readily accessible, and the three books above have influenced not only how I work with students and clients but also my own path in life.
Murphy Paul is a writer who studies how we learn. She does a great job of digesting current research for lay readers, and she ranges across topics from neuroscience to the educational system. Her regular newsletter, "The Brilliant Report," is one of a tiny number I subscribe to and actually read.
3. Brené Brown on vulnerability
Brown is an increasingly well-known professor at the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work, and her research addresses such topics as vulnerability, authenticity, courage, empathy and shame. This 20-minute TED talk shot in Houston in 2010 has been seen nearly 12 million times; I've seen it half a dozen times myself, and I still find it stirring.
This 2001 HBR article by Vanessa Druskat and Steven Wolff is one of the most useful readings we assign students at Stanford, and I refer to it regularly in my coaching practice. The authors make a compelling case that a group's effectiveness is based on norms that help members both deepen emotional awareness and strengthen emotion regulation (work that I view as one of the most important tasks of senior leaders).5. Carol Dweck's concept of fixed and growth mindsets
Stanford psychologist Dweck has found that we tend toward one of two "mindsets"--in a fixed mindset we view our abilities as inherent, and we view mistakes as character flaws, while in a growth mindset we believe our abilities can be developed through persistent effort, and we view mistakes as learning opportunities.
Written by David Rock (see below) and Linda Page, this wide-ranging book from 2009 explores a series of bedrock concepts (from ontology to management theory) that support "coaching pillars," which in turn underpin a "neuroscience platform."7. Dan Oestreich's blog, newsletter and tweets
Oestreich is a coach and consultant based near Seattle, and I've found his writing to be a great source of learning and inspiration. He's one of the most heartfelt and personal writers on this list, and he illustrates his blog with an assortment of stunning nature photographs--usually taken on hikes in the Pacific Northwest. I particularly like his newsletter, which typically comes out monthly and is eminently readable (and I was honored to be interviewed for it.)
8. David Foster Wallace's 2005 Kenyon College commencement speech
You can listen to the original audio, but I prefer the version published in The Wall Street Journal after Wallace's suicide. I think it's important to maintain some critical distance here; Wallace's close friend Jonathan Franzen makes clear that Wallace shouldn't be viewed as some sort of "great and gentle soul." But the failings of the messenger don't eliminate the value of the message, and I've learned much from Wallace's message here.
9. David Rock's SCARF model
Rock, a coach based in New York, studies current neuroscience research and discusses its implications for leaders and managers. In this 2008 paper Rock discusses one of his most compelling findings, a model that helps to explain the types of interpersonal situations likely to trigger a social threat.
This absurdly simple site is still the only tool I use and recommend to clients to track daily activities.
This 2011 post of mine (and a terrific response from Dan Might, a former Stanford student) has stuck with me as a reasonably concise articulation of my own leadership philosophy.
Yes, I'm one of the co-authors, so I'm hardly an objective reviewer--but note that I'm not getting royalties :-) At any rate, I still think this book is a great coaching and teaching resource, and I'm proud to be associated with the other contributors.
Edgar Schein's 2009 book is the single-best resource I know on how to initiate and sustain successful helping relationships, bar none, and while it's had a substantial influence on my approach to coaching and teaching, I also believe its message is relevant to any leader. If I could ask all of my students and clients to read one book, this would be the one.
Kofodimos is a coach and consultant in North Carolina formerly with the Center for Creative Leadership. Her pithy, straightforward posts discuss complex concepts from management theory in the context of the day-to-day challenges faced by her clients.
Judy Willis is a former neurologist who obtained her teaching credential after a 15-year career in medicine and now teaches at Santa Barbara Middle School. Willis also writes about how to apply what we're learning from neuroscience research in educational settings, and this 2007 paper has had a significant impact on my approach to teaching.
16. Peter Drucker's Managing Oneself
I came across this HBR essay, first published in 1998, while I was in business school, and it continues to influence my work with clients and students (and my own life) today.
Karen Reivich and Andrew Shatté's 2002 book explores their theory that resilience is comprised of seven specific practices, each of which we can pursure more deliberately as we seek to build our capacity to persist through difficulties, overcome obstacles and deal with setbacks.
This out-of-print book from 1978 by Karen Stone and Harold Dillehunt provides a curriculum for elementary school teachers, and yet I've found it a great source of inspiration in my work with MBAs and professional coaching clients. Stone and Dillehunt taught at the Nueva Learning Center--now known as the Nueva School--and were among the pioneers of social-emotional learning.
For this 2003 book Po Bronson interviewed some 900 people, and just over 50 of their stories made it into print. It doesn't rise to the level of Studs Terkel's majestic oral histories, but with its focus on people struggling to give their lives a sense of meaning and purpose it's a uniquely valuable resource.
In 2006 UK-based coaches Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones expanded their HBR article of the same name into a full-length book, drawing upon experiences with their clients to illustrate their core concepts. It's one of my favorite books in any field.Photo by Ron Matson. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
The more I work with senior leaders, the more convinced I am that there are just three critical leadership tasks. They're very simple to understand and tremendously difficult to do:
1. Set our priorities.
Don't let them be set for us by others, by circumstances or by our Inbox. And the more senior we are, the more latitude and choice we have, the more we need to rely on our judgment and intuition. This requires being open to influence while resisting advocacy, being attuned to the data while knowing when to ignore it and take a calculated risk.
2. Focus our attention.
Focused attention is a leader's most important resource, not only because it's so powerful, but also because it's finite. Even when we work longer and harder, our capacity for truly focused attention is neurologically limited. So it's crucial to focus our attention on our priorities, without allowing ourselves to be distracted by things that appear urgent but lack importance. This requires establishing boundaries to protect our attention, developing habits that help us maintain focus, and switching off the false alarms (digital and emotional) that constantly interrupt us throughout the day.
3. Manage our emotions.
Note that manage doesn't mean suppress. Emotions are essential to effective influencing and decision-making, and we need to harness them to serve our needs. We also need to resist being hijacked by them, and this involves not only the big emotions that disrupt us in dramatic fashion, but also the subtle ones that sidetrack us and slowly draw us off course over time. This requires an ongoing commitment to sense, understand, articulate and express our emotions effectively.
When we get these three tasks right, everything else tends to fall into place--and when we don't, we waste endless amounts of time and energy trying to compensate.
Photo by Jean-Etienne Minh-Duy Poirrier. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
Last night I facilitated a workshop on Startup Communication at Bloomberg's San Francisco offices aimed at helping co-founders 1) communicate more effectively with each other, 2) establish group norms in the company that support better communication and 3) model better communication with their employees.
Tomorrow the new school year begins in earnest for me at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, where I've been an Instructor and Leadership Coach since 2007 and where I was an MBA student myself 15 years ago. This past year has been full of lows and highs for me, ranging from a painful back injury to a book and a brand-new blog, so tomorrow's milestone is prompting me to step back and think about what I appreciate about Stanford right now and my hopes for the coming year.
I'm keenly aware of what a privilege it is to have such talented and dedicated students. I've worked in some capacity with roughly 1,000 Stanford MBAs over the years, and I can count on one hand those who I'm reluctant to think of as my fellow alumni. I'm not suggesting that our students are candidates for sainthood--they're young people who can lack perspective, make questionable choices, and spend way too much time on elaborate social activities, as young people do. (I sure did.)
But 99.9% of them work their asses off and seek to make the most of their abilities. And they all believe that they can do well by doing good in some way, shape or form. They are MBAs, of course, which means that they're competitive people who keep score, but very few are seeking simply to maximize their earning power; they want to make a difference in their professional lives, to leave the world a better place than they found it, and they expect to make a good living in the process. Will all those dreams come true? No. But I know how important it is to have those dreams in the first place, and I'm eager to do what I can to help as many of my students as possible realize theirs.
For the next six months I'll coach 12 Leadership Fellows as they in turn each support nine first-year students, and in the first half of 2014 I'll work with 24 students in two sections of Touchy Feely, our most popular elective (officially known as Interpersonal Dynamics), helping them develop a range of interpersonal and leadership skills. I'll wear some other hats too, but those will be my biggest responsibilities, and they're certainly the ones I look forward to the most.
I keep a list of the students I've worked with most closely over the years--a total of 311 at the moment--and this year I had several opportunities to reach out to them. I wanted to let them know about the writing I've been doing, which I hoped would be a useful resource to them--and I also just wanted to learn more about their post-MBA careers. The response was gratifying, although not surprising, because so many of them are doing such cool things:
- Building an ecologically sustainable fashion company.
- Allowing people to make better decisions about healthcare.
- Investing in growing South Asian ventures.
- Consulting to companies on improving their organizational culture.
- Taking over a family business to keep it running smoothly.
- Attending basic training for the U.S. Army Reserves.
- Launching a micro-lending practice in New York City.
- Running an alternative online dating service.
- Building an app that suggests inspiring activities to try.
- Helping to grow a big-data healthcare startup.
- Creating a training and coaching platform for front-line teams.
- Starting a company in India.
- Managing multiple cities for a rideshare service.
- Leading a branding consulting firm.
- Coaching venture founders and CEOs.
- Pursuing an MD after a career in consulting and strategy.
Now, is everyone out there doing something this awesome? No, of course not--as I said, not all dreams come true, and there are plenty of alums I know who are less-than-thrilled by what they're doing at the moment. In some cases they're working off their B-school debt, while others knowingly played it safe because they wanted a brand name on the resume. But even those who aren't finding their work fulfilling now have the opportunity to ask their peers for advice and guidance--a resource that was invaluable when I made my own transition from management to coaching in 2006.
I often work with GSB alumni in my private coaching practice, but this year I'm also looking for more opportunities to tap into the wisdom of the alums I know so that it can be shared with my current students.
Despite the warm feelings I have about our students and alumni, I'm not one of those people who think Stanford is the center of the universe. It's an organization, like any other, and it's subject to the same dysfunctional pitfalls as any other. I think it's critical to step back and assess where Stanford falls short of its lofty rhetoric, not to assign blame but to look for opportunities to live up to our ideals.
To take just one example, the number of women enrolled at the GSB continues to hover around 35%. This is consistent with other MBA programs, and it certainly has more to do with the number of women applying than with a blatant bias at the school--but it's still a problem. I don't think the GSB's culture is as sexist as Harvard's, but I consistently hear from my women students that at times they feel unwelcome, and the school can do better.
That said, while I've had my share of frustrations with the GSB over the last seven years, I also truly believe that it's become a better place and continues to improve. Like any elite institution, it can be slow to change--but it does change. The culture isn't entirely flexible, but it's not rigid, either, and there is a collective desire on the part of everyone involved to aim high and get there. My colleagues and I on the school's coaching staff were hired seven years ago as part of a major revision to the school's curriculum, a process that grew out of the recognition that, as Dean Garth Saloner has said, "What [employers] really tell us they need are leadership skills. It's what you might think of as the softer skills, or the people skills. Those are the things that are in short supply in managers who they want to rise to the most important and significant ranks in their companies."
That's a big change in what we mean by management education, and even though I learned a great deal at the GSB 15 years ago, I believe that today's students are much better off than I was. I feel lucky to be playing a small part in that process, and I'm excited to make a modest but meaningful contribution this year.
Photo by Neotake Murayama. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
Duff McDonald's new book, The Firm: The Story of McKinsey and Its Secret Influence on American Business, discusses the management consulting firm founded by James "Mac" McKinsey in 1926, which a number of my MBA students at Stanford have joined over the years.
I haven't yet read the book, although I've seen a number of reviews, including one in the Wall Street Journal just a few days ago. But the commentary that I found most interesting was a letter to the Journal by Bob Wittebort of Chicago:
Stewart Pinkerton's Sept. 7 review of Duff McDonald's "The Firm" refers to "Mac" McKinsey's controversial engagement with Marshall Field & Co. in the late 1930s, during which he was elected chairman of the board and vested with broad executive power. He wielded that power ruthlessly and, many thought, without respect for the long-settled "Field way." In their history of Marshall Field, Lloyd Wendt and Herman Kogan poignantly describe the lesson McKinsey himself drew from the experience: "McKinsey was informed that unless he changed his management tactics dramatically, his resignation would be demanded at the end of the year. Two weeks later, McKinsey was critically ill with pneumonia at Woodlawn Hospital. To his friend James Margeson, who called at his bedside, he observed, 'Jim, never in my whole life before did I know how much more difficult it is to make business decisions myself than merely advising others what to do in their businesses, without having to take the final responsibility myself.' The following day he was dead." The very best consultants share this wisdom; indeed, it might be what makes them the very best consultants. [Emphasis mine]
While I'm not a management consultant, there's a lesson here that's highly relevant to my work as a coach, and, I'd argue, to all our helping relationships. I'm able to help others face challenges and make difficult decisions, in part, because their challenges are not my challenges, and while I'm deeply invested in my clients and students, I'm not attached to any particular outcomes for them. In a sense, I'm able to provide help precisely because I don't fully experience what my clients and students experience.
In Coaching with the Brain in Mind, David Rock and Linda Page describe this process from a neurological perspective. When we're faced with a challenging situation and weighing our options, they write...
[T]he input we think is purely from our senses in fact arrives already saturated with amygdala and "top-down" (i.e. highly interpreted) processing... Coaches are trained to ask questions that elicit information stripped of its top-down implications in order to set the stage for creative responses rather than mindless reactions. The next step is to generate options for interpretations other than the ones that the client automatically arrived at. Because amygdala arousal can reduce processing power in the prefrontal cortex, clients benefit from "borrowing" the less-aroused brain of the coach to aid in generating these options. [pp 355-356]
Returning to Mac McKinsey, it was probably easy for him to imagine that he had all the answers--and perhaps that his clients were foolish for ignoring his patently sound advice--when he wasn't ultimately responsible. What's tragic is that he seems to have fully understood this--and truly felt empathy for his clients--only on his deathbed.
A fundamental challenge we face when we're helping others--particularly in informal helping relationships with colleagues, friends and family--is to make effective use of the critical distance that separates us from those we're seeking to help, while also remaining deeply empathetic to the difficulty they face as the responsible party. If we err on the side of distance, we fall into McKinsey's trap, and we fail to appreciate how much more complex and daunting the situation may appear to the other person. And if we err on the side of closeness, we may get caught up in the other person's experience and feel it so fully that we're no longer as helpful in the process of filtering information and generating options.
The title was inspired by Torbjörn Gyllebring, who used the phrase "inflicting help" in his response to a tweet of mine. (A great example of how Twitter's unexpected connections and short form inspire further thought.)
Many thanks to Tim Sullivan for his ongoing guidance and encouragement.
Photo © Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
I moved to San Francisco in 1990 with no meaningful loyalties to any sports teams, and I quickly fell in love with the city, so it's no surprise that I became a 49ers and Giants fan. I don't write about sports often, although occasionally they provide useful examples and counter-examples that are relevant to my work with leaders and MBA students. So today I want to express my appreciation for Colin Kaepernick, #7 above, and Alex Smith, #11, the current and previous quarterbacks for the 49ers.
Smith was a long-suffering (albeit well-compensated) talent on the poorly coached, horrendously mismanaged and perennially terrible Niners teams of the second half of the last decade. He deserves some blame for those failures, of course, but in my opinion he was repeatedly let down by leaders who simply had no idea what they were doing. New leadership eventually turned the team around and seemed to rekindle some magic in Smith, who in 2012 was having his best season by far when an injury knocked him out of the lineup.
Kaepernick, a second-year player, took over and never looked back, keeping the starting job even after Smith had fully recovered. Some fans felt, as I did, that Smith was being unfairly denied this opportunity to finally lead a decent team, and we couldn't quite embrace Kaepernick, the new guy, the stranger. Through it all Smith was a model teammate, although I have to imagine it felt like a cruel twist of fate to lose his position just as the team was on the cusp of greatness. And I can't even fathom what Smith felt when the team he led for years fell just short and lost the Super Bowl with Kaepernick at the helm. Half-misery, half-schadenfreude, I guess.
But the off-season heals, and I'm happy that Smith was able to move on and find a new professional home in Kansas City, and as the 49ers traded scores with the Green Bay Packers (Boo!) in the season's first game this weekend, I found myself equally happy that Kaepernick was on our side. The Packers had been threatening before the game to shut down Kaepernick by intimidating and overwhelming him, and what finally marked the transition for me and made me think of Kaepernick as our guy was this quote after the game:
#49ers QB Colin Kaepernick: "If intimidation is your game plan, I hope you have a better one."— Matt Maiocco (@MaioccoCSN) September 9, 2013
I love it.
I'm not suggesting that Smith and Kaepernick are role models--they're entertainers. (And as Charles Barkley once said, athletes and rock stars aren't role models.) But I find it interesting to think about their different approaches to leadership, at least in the narrow realm of NFL quarterbacking, and to wonder what we might learn from them and apply in the wider world: Smith, the stoic veteran who refused to complain and refused to quit, and Kaepernick, the joyful upstart who refuses to be intimidated, who refuses to be anyone but himself. These approaches aren't mutually exclusive, and I suspect Smith would have benefited from a little more defiance earlier in his career--and I suspect Kaepernick might benefit from a little stoicism some day in the future.
There's value in finding the balance between those two poles in ourselves, being able to regulate and self-manage and stoically persist through times of intense stress while also being able to tap into our defiance, our anger, our power and, when necessary, let someone know that we won't be intimidated.
The occasion of my 5,000th tweet prompts a look back to...April 4, 2008. My first tweet: "about to plunge into the madness that is Palo Alto to Santa Cruz at rush hour. send good traffic karma my way. pls."
So apparently I thought it was an outlet for First World problems.
Fail Whale by Yiying Lu.
The Inside-Out Effect: A Practical Guide to Transformational Leadership, by Behnam Tabrizi and Michael Terrell, was published earlier this year, and I was particularly eager to read it because (full disclosure) Michael and I have worked together at Stanford, and I consider him a good friend.
The Inside-Out Effect offers a set of tools and techniques that support personal growth and development, with a focus on professional fulfillment and effectiveness. Woven throughout are first-person perspectives from Michael and Behnam on their own journeys that give the book a warm, conversational feel.
Michael and Behnam call their organizing principle Know-Be-Lead: First, know yourself more fully and at a deeper level. Then be that fuller self by setting goals and taking steps to effect change where needed. Finally, lead others authentically by helping them to know and be their fuller selves in turn. The book introduces tools and techniques to support each phase of the process, often discussing the behavioral research or psychological principles that explain why they work.
Starting with Know, Michael and Behnam note that "The first step toward greater self-awareness is clarifying who you are not," [p 38], and they discuss the concept of "identity pitfalls": We can deceive ourselves into thinking that our stories about ourselves, our appearances, our thoughts and emotions constitute our identities, when they're merely fleeting or superficial aspects. Michael and Behnam cite Eckhart Tolle's concept of the ego as an "illusory sense of identity," and while I'm ambivalent about Tolle as a contemporary spiritual figure, I fully agree that we can take the most trivial parts of our selves and treat them as if they were the most important--a theme echoed by writers from Seneca to David Foster Wallace.
Having begun the process of understanding who we're not, Michael and Behnam move on to exploring who we are. They recommend a range of tools, from personality diagnostics to journaling and meditation, aimed at helping us find the sweet spot that exists at the intersection of our strengths, our sources of meaning, and our sources of joy. Then they walk through the process of defining our values and pulling all this data together into a Calling-Vision Statement, "a guide for the actions you take...a map for how you will show up in every one of your interactions." [p 101]
One cautionary note on personality diagnostics: While Michael and Behnam write thoughtfully about their personal experiences with the MBTI and the Enneagram, and there are coaches I respect who use these tools extensively, they're subject to misinterpretation and misuse. Tools like this can serve as helpful starting points in seeking to understand ourselves, but I believe we need to assess their results with care and healthy skepticism.
The Be section of the book focuses on identifying goals and effecting change, ranging from small steps that will allow us to feel more fulfilled in our current lives to large-scale, fundamental transformations. Michael and Behnam recognize that while goals can be powerful motivators, they can also generate anxiety. While small changes may feel within our capabilities, we may doubt whether they'll make a meaningful difference. And while we may feel the need to make big changes in our lives, we may also worry that it's too late to do so--or that the financial impact of such changes will be unacceptable. Michael and Behnam discuss research from a number of sources that provides a helpful context within which we can wrestle with these concerns and reach our own conclusions.
In their chapter on change, Michael and Behnam focus on the importance of emotion and ritual, referencing Jonathan Haidt's "Elephant and Rider" metaphor to describe our emotional and rational dimensions. Sustainable change occurs when we both 1) provide the "rider"--our rational, analytical consciousness--with a clear "map" in the form of accurate data about ourselves and specific, written goals, and 2) spur the "elephant"--our emotions--in the right direction through a motivating vision, peer support, and tools such as visualization, energy management and action triggers.
The book's concluding Lead section addresses the importance of authenticity and emotional intelligence in leading others, and a final chapter emphasizes the importance of mindset, celebrating milestones and victories and the ongoing process of self-renewal.
While I recommend The Inside-Out Effect, I do think it could be stronger in a few areas. There are passages where Michael and Behnam quickly touch on a topic that warrants further exploration. For example, in their chapter on change, they note the importance of self-compassion when we fail to accomplish our goals, and in their chapter on leadership they mention the value of standing up for one's beliefs even when it's difficult. These are complex dilemmas that come up frequently in my work with clients and students--and in my own life--and there are no simple solutions. I certainly don't expect Michael and Behnam to provide ready-made answers, but a deeper discussion of these challenges would be helpful.
Michael and Behman are scrupulous about citing their references, and I appreciate their generous acknowledgment of the work of others who've influenced their thinking. That said, there are a few works that appear frequently in the text or the footnotes, such as Chip and Dan Heath's Switch and Steve Jobs' 2005 Commencement address at Stanford, and while those works are clearly top-shelf influences, seeing them crop up multiple times felt somewhat repetitive.
These issues aside, The Inside-Out Effect is a great resource for anyone looking for a straightforward, actionable set of tools to make change easier, ranging from modest behavioral goals to a large-scale professional transition. While I've been transparent about my friendship with Michael in this review, I've also been candid with my criticism, so I feel completely objective in encouraging you to buy the book (or get the app!)
One of my favorite sources of inspiration is Oblique Strategies, first created by Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno in 1975. It's a set of 103 cards, each bearing a short, cryptic instruction or question, such as "Use 'unqualified' people" or "Go outside. Shut the door" or "Is it finished?"
There are an endless number of ways to use Oblique Strategies, the most obvious being to simply draw a card and see what it inspires you to do. I like using it with groups as a way to introduce some randomness into the experience. Here's a simple game for a group discussion:
1) Deal three cards to each person.
2) Everyone reviews their cards and then keeps one card for themselves, passes one card to the person on their left, and discards the remaining card.
3) Everyone now has two cards, one they chose for themselves and one chosen for them.
4) What do these cards make us think about? Talk to the group about one (or both) of them. (The provocative content of the cards and the framing of a "game" gives people permission to go places they might not otherwise.)
I have the 5th edition of the cards, "slightly revised" in 2001, which you can buy directly from Brian Eno for £30 ($45.33 at today's exchange rate). You can also sometimes find used 5th edition decks on Amazon for a reasonable price, but older editions are insanely expensive collector's items.
There are also Oblique Strategies apps, and while I don't find them as useful as the physical cards, they're certainly more convenient to lug around. A free iOS app is currently available, but I'm told that it always shows the cards in the same order, which defeats the purpose.
Another free iOS app, "Oblique Cards," that shows the cards in random order was developed by Viktor Kelemen, but Apple tells me it's no longer available in the U.S. Too bad.
Photo of Peter Schmidt and Brian Eno © Ritva Saarikko.
Self-coaching is the process of guiding our growth and development, particularly through periods of transition, in both the professional and personal realms. (As an executive coach, I focus on helping clients address issues related to professional fulfillment and effectiveness, but the dynamic interplay of our professional and personal lives means that each sphere affects the other, and we can’t look at one in isolation.)
Our Coaching Team
Self-coaching is a self-directed activity, but not a solitary one. We may ask colleagues, friends, family and even professional coaches to be members of our “coaching team.” Some of these coaching relationships will be long-lasting and wide-ranging, while others will be brief and address a single issue; what connects them is the meaning we derive from each conversation and how we apply that learning in an overarching framework.
How We See Ourselves
Self-coaching starts with our attitude toward ourselves: How do we see ourselves? Effective self-coaching involves seeing ourselves as a work-in-progress, being open to learning and change, and adopting a mindset that supports this perspective. This attitude toward ourselves is the foundation for all self-coaching, and our ability to make effective use of any self-coaching tools rests upon it.
Self-coaching also involves an ongoing process of reflection. We need to view our lives as an ongoing exercise in experiential learning, and we need to obtain the necessary critical distance to be able to observe and reflect upon our experiences, while also fully inhabiting those experiences in the moment. The precise steps we take in this process will look different for each of us, and they will vary over time, but it’s critical to regularly engage ourselves in conversation and to develop the habitual practices that support this reflection.
An important product of this reflection is increased self-awareness, by which I mean both a heightened in-the-moment perception of how we respond to various situations and a deeper understanding over time of who we are as individuals. Our immediate perception of our physical and emotional responses to situations is often blunted--it’s only in retrospect that we fully understand what we were feeling. Honing this in-the-moment awareness of our responses allows us to expand the range of options available to us and to make choices that will best support our goals in any given situation.
Over time this heightened perception contributes to a deeper understanding of ourselves. We learn more about our tendencies and preferences, and patterns in our behavior (with certain people, in certain settings, at certain moments) begin to reveal themselves. We can then capitalize on these patterns, exploiting those that work to our advantage and challenging (or avoiding) those that work to our disadvantage.
At some level self-coaching is all about change. Changing how we spend our time so we're more fulfilled, and changing our behavior so we're more effective. Doing more of what's working in our lives, and doing less of--or stopping entirely--what's not working. We may even want to change the direction of our lives in a more comprehensive way, and all large changes result from a series of smaller ones.
Action and Inaction
Change is rarely easy, but the self-awareness noted above can make the process much easier. Heightened self-awareness allows us to make different choices, both in the moment and over time. In the moment, we can act--or we can refrain from action. In situations where we might tend to lean back (for example, to avoid a conflict, or to shrug off work that seems difficult, rather than be limited by our pre-existing mental models and beliefs about ourselves, we can step forward and act.
Alternatively, in situations where we might tend to react compulsively or reflexively (for example, when we’re angry or stressed), rather than blindly obey our impulses, we can slow things down and act with greater care...or do nothing at all. Collectively, these interventions take the form of momentary, tactical acts of what we might call self-regulation, and taken as a whole they comprise a larger, strategic process of self-management.
Our interest in self-coaching efforts is often driven by a set of goals. A goal may be highly detailed, a target we want to hit or an accomplishment we hope to achieve, or it can merely be a general direction we want to move toward. There’s extensive research going back decades on the power of goals to motivate action (and, under the right conditions, superior performance), but in recent years additional findings have highlighted the downside of goals.
They’re such powerful motivators they can actually lead us to act against our larger self-interest. We achieve a goal, but at a cost we regret; or we achieve a goal, but in the process the experience loses its savor and is no longer enjoyable; or we achieve a goal, but we fail to see the big picture and miss out on a more important or meaningful accomplishment. While clarity about our goals may be essential if we want to achieve them, it’s also worth asking whether our goals are the right goals and whether they may have any counter-productive side-effects.
Values and Vision
Our self-coaching efforts occur within a context defined by our personal values and our vision for ourselves. If self-coaching is a sequence of steps to help us effect positive change in our lives, then our values and our vision are the source of meaning and purpose in our lives, the underlying rationale for the changes we seek to make.
It's not necessary--or even desirable--to fully define our values and vision at the very start of the self-coaching process. These are large, complex topics that take time and effort to address, and at the beginning of a change effort it may be more important to simplify: Break things down into components, build momentum with small victories, and scale up as needed. But a sense of overall direction is still important, and we need to make time at regular intervals to pull up and observe our progress from a higher perspective.
Accepting ourselves is ultimately one of the most important aspects of self-coaching. While a desire for change may initiate our self-coaching efforts, an inability to accept and love ourselves--right now, as we are, with all our flaws and foibles intact--condemns us to an endless cycle of dissatisfaction. The most profound coaching imaginable can't overcome this obstacle, and we ultimately need to validate ourselves.
I'm not suggesting that the self is the only source of validation. Any number of external factors contribute to this desired outcome, from healthy relationships to sufficient social status and material rewards, and in their absence the work of self-acceptance will be more difficult. But no amount of external validation will ever be enough until we're able to accept and love ourselves.
Photo by swanksalot. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
This week I had the privilege of working with a management team on their communication and interpersonal dynamics, and a modified version of my slide deck is above. I've added banners to a number of the slides that link to posts and other resources with further information. Many thanks to the team for inviting me to join them!
Many of my coaching clients and former students face challenges in their work environment--conflicts with colleagues, intense pressure to succeed, various forms of dysfunction in the culture. But many of these people are leaders who have some ability to change that culture (and, in some cases, who bear responsibility for creating it). What if you're not in a position to change the culture? And what if it's not just a dysfunctional environment but a toxic one?
I've talked recently with several people in this situation--they're new to the organization, senior enough to interact with top leadership (for better and for worse), but junior enough that their ability to drive change is limited. Not all of their organizations are truly toxic, but they're all less-than-healthy environments. Some common themes from these conversations, work with past clients, and my own experience with dysfunctional cultures suggest a set of survival strategies:
1) Serenity Now!
Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer is a cliché because it's true, and the quickest way to burn out in a dysfunctional environment is to fail to recognize what can't be changed. A less quick, but equally certain, path to burnout is to passively accept all dysfunction and make no effort to bring about change. It's essential to chart a path between these unhealthy alternatives, and to do this we have to take some manageable risks to determine what we can and can't change: Start small and scale up.
In a truly toxic environment--one that's dysfunctional by design--meaningful change is nearly impossible because the dysfunction is working to someone's benefit. But even when we can't change a single thing in our environment, we can still control how we respond. I don't mean to compare a toxic workplace to a concentration camp, but I'm reminded that Viktor Frankl, who was in Auschwitz while Niebuhr was composing his prayer, wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, "When we are no longer able to change a situation...we are challenged to change ourselves." [p 115]
One of the hallmarks of a dysfunctional environment is its ability to trigger a threat response, and when we can't change the organization (or leave it), we need to develop the ability to remain calm in the face of these triggers, to regulate our negative emotions effectively when we're triggered, and to find healthy and efficient ways to de-escalate those emotions. (And coaching can help.)
2) Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries
Dysfunctional organizations have a boundless appetite for employees' time and do nothing to encourage people to stop working. (Truly toxic cultures actively induce feelings of guilt at the mere suggestion that a healthy life might include activities other than work.)
The dilemma is that most professionals actively collude in these dynamics. I'm certainly a workaholic, albeit a happy one, and almost all of my clients are as well. We love our work--even when we struggle with our jobs--and the idea of "work/life balance" strikes us as undesirable even if it were attainable.
A solution lies in the power of boundaries--a concept I find much more useful and actionable than "balance." Because we're so driven to work--and because even the best organizations will exploit this drive--it's up to us to prevent work from taking over our lives, and good boundaries are the only way to make this possible. As my former colleague Michael Gilbert wrote in 2008,
Boundaries keep things in their place. Balance suggests the same amount of two things on either side of a scale. Boundaries keep one of those things from oozing past the edge of its platter and taking over the other side... Just as functional membranes (letting the right things through and keeping the wrong things out) facilitate the healthy interaction of the cells of our bodies, so do functional personal boundaries facilitate the healthy interaction of the various parts of our lives. Bad boundaries lead to either being overwhelmed or withdrawal. Good boundaries lead to wholeness and synergy.
Good boundaries are even more important when we're working in a dysfunctional or toxic environment. We need physical boundaries that allow us to create distance between us and our work (which includes not only the office itself but also all our professional tools and artifacts--laptops, tablets, phones, papers, everything.)
We need temporal boundaries that allow us to spend time undisturbed by work obligations. Note that I'm talking not about balance but about boundaries; the amount of undisturbed time we can create for ourselves will vary--and may be quite small--but what matters is that we create and maintain a functional boundary around that time.
And we need psychic boundaries that allow us to stop thinking about work so that we can actually make effective use of the boundaries noted about. (I'm not suggesting this is easy--quite the contrary. As I've noted before, not thinking about something is difficult, particularly when we're stressed or distracted.)
3) Find Validation Elsewhere
A hallmark of a dysfunctional organization is a failure to fully recognize and validate peoples' contributions. (A truly toxic culture goes a step further and actively invalidates its members.) The challenge this poses for people like my clients and students (and for me) is that we're accustomed to performing well and being recognized for it, and when we find ourselves in an environment where this equation no longer holds, we can be slow to adapt. We assume that if we just work a little harder, do just a little better, we'll eventually be recognized for our efforts.
But this mindset is a trap--the dysfunctional organization isn't going to change, and the longer it takes us to accept this, the more we strive in vain for validation that won't be forthcoming. This dynamic can be particularly acute in elite institutions such as highly competitive schools or desirable companies. Membership in these institutions boosts our status, but our awareness that membership can be revoked creates a sense of status anxiety that makes us strive even harder.
The key is ensuring that we're being validated elsewhere in our lives. We need to be fully seen and acknowledged by people whose opinions matter to us and who are in a position to recognize our contributions. This involves not only cultivating those relationships, of course, but also being direct about asking for positive feedback--a step that many of us find daunting. And ultimately it means validating ourselves, recognizing that even when external validation is forthcoming it's inevitably insufficient as a sustainable source of happiness and fulfillment.
4) Adopt a Growth Mindset...
...and remember the fundamental attribution error. A dysfunctional organization views setbacks as the result of employees' inadequacies while failing to consider situational factors, resulting in a lack of safety and a paralyzing aversion to risk. (A truly toxic organization actively seeks to shift blame for setbacks from high-status leaders to lower-status employees, no matter who's truly at fault.)
Research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that a "growth mindset" is a critical source of strength and resilience:
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They're wrong.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.
By adopting a growth mindset, we're better able to maintain a sense of equanimity in the face of mistakes and setbacks. This isn't to suggest that we ignore our failings; on the contrary, a growth mindset allows us to devote more attention to our mistakes and learn from them more thoroughly wihout becoming obsessed or paralyzed by them.
The challenge in a dysfunctional culture is that the organization won't accept blame for any setbacks, even--and especially--when the culture itself is a contributing factor. So it's essential not to collude in this process and to remember the fundamental attribution error, a widespread cognitive bias that I first learned in business school from the outstanding Roberto Fernandez as:
Ascribing causality to personal characteristics when causality actually lies with the situation.
While it's important to take responsibility for our own contributions to an organizational setback, it's equally important to recognize the situational factors at play. By integrating this perspective with a growth mindset, we can act accountably and with integrity without undermining ourselves.
5) Speak Up
Finally, when we're struggling in a dysfunctional culture, we need to talk about it with someone; we need to speak up. I'm fully aware that speaking up often involves some risk, but so does staying silent. And the benefits of speaking up are manifold. When we speak up to a colleague, we create a safe space for ourselves within the organization, even if it's just a temporary one, and we may identify a long-term ally.
And by speaking up to anyone at all, even someone outside the organization, we accomplish two key steps: First, we affirm our right to tell our story, even if it upsets the conventional narrative. Particularly when we're enmeshed in a dysfunctional culture in an elite institution, there can be a large gap between the way our life appears to others and the way it feels to us, and it's important not to let the image disconfirm our actual experience.
Second, by speaking up we remind ourselves that we have agency and choice, even if it may not feel like it at times, and taking the small step of telling our story encourages us to take larger, bolder steps from there. We might feel emboldened to make some changes within our sphere of influence. We might seek to expand our influence by talking more directly and candidly with those around us. We might even decide to exercise our choice to leave.
If you're working in a dysfunctional environment and you found this post helpful, you might want to explore my posts on self-coaching. They're not intended to replace the experience of working with a personal coach, but my hope is that they help people who are working with a coach get even more out of the experience and provide people who lack the opportunity to work with a coach with a framework for a self-directed experience. (Note that they're also very much a work-in-progress that I'll continue to update.)
Photo by John Morgan. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.