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.
"An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage," International Association for the Study of Pain
I've been blessed with good health throughout my life, not to mention good luck. Nineteen years ago a motorcycle accident that should have mangled me resulted in nothing worse than a broken arm. A few years after that I avoided what would have been a useless lower back surgery when I realized that the increasing pain I'd been experiencing was stress-related, and a modest effort at managing my stress ended my lower back pain permanently.
But the last six weeks have been different.
I've frequently been in pain since mid-January, when I experienced what felt like a severe muscle spasm in my upper back. I've occasionally had minor spasms in my upper back over the years, typically after working out too hard, but they would always disappear after a few days of rest. This time, however, the pain didn't go away, and I developed some new (and scary) symptoms, including a sore neck, pain radiating down my right arm, tingling and numbness in my right hand and fingertips, and significant weakness on my right side.
Thankfully, when I'm highly focused--most notably in a coaching session--I lose awareness of the pain, so it hasn't prevented me from fulfilling my responsibilities to my clients and students. But it's certainly affected the rest of my life, and I feel a lot less joyful and more somber than I usually do. After taking it easy for a few weeks, my condition improved a bit but eventually plateaued, and I finally realized I needed to see a doctor.
The definition of pain above was quoted to me last week by (the fantastic) Dr. Judy Silverman of St. Mary's, who diagnosed me with a herniated disk adjacent to my C-7 vertebra, which has apparently damaged the nerves running from my spinal column to my right arm and hand, resulting in the pain, tingling and numbness. The pain improved somewhat after the initial trauma to the nerves, but it didn't go away--and the other symptoms worsened--presumably because some specific movements and body positions continued to irritate the affected nerves. Dr. Silverman and I agreed that surgery and pain medication weren't warranted, and she's referred me to physical therapy, which begins this week.
So what have I learned so far? Four thoughts come to mind:
1) I can be still--at least for a while.
In March 2009 I had perhaps the worst cold ever, and as a result I realized that, "I don't do stillness well...and perhaps I should find a way." I was sufficiently rattled by that experience that I knew I needed to make some changes, and I did. After years of half-hearted efforts, I finally got serious about meditation, and today I have a capacity for stillness--both the voluntary stillness of meditation and the enforced stillness that this injury is imposing on me--that I never had before. I continue to struggle with stillness, but at least I'm more comfortable with it than I used to be.
2) I'm better prepared for old age.
Another result of that terrible cold in 2009 was the realization that, "I'm less ready for old age--and mortality--than I thought I was." And while I'm still enjoying this existence a great deal, over the last four years I've devoted a lot of thought to death and the meaning of life, to being present and to the shortness of life, and as a result I feel much more in touch with my mortality and the impending indignities of old age than I was just four years ago.
3) I need to find (yet) another gear.
I'm someone who's always thrived on pushing myself. That's not to say I'm a joyless worker-bee--far from it. I love to work hard (at work that I love), and I love to play hard, too. My illness in 2009 taught me that I needed to learn how to be still, and I did. But two gears isn't enough, at least at this stage of my life. I'm reasonably sure that my herniated disk was the result of both A) working out harder than usual in December and early January and B) just plain working harder than usual over that same span, spending even more time writing after signing a book contract. I'll keep pushing myself, but now I need to find a third gear somewhere between Go Hard and Be Still that'll allow me to advance at a sustainable pace.
4) I'm learning the definition of pain.
The word "definition" itself has multiple meanings. It means, of course "the formal statement of the meaning or significance of a word"--as in the definition of pain quoted above--but it also means "the condition of being distinct or clearly outlined," and that's the meaning I refer to now. My wife Amy has suffered from chronic pain in her shoulder for the last four years which two difficult surgeries failed to fully resolve, and which she now manages on a day-to-day basis. My experience over the last six weeks has made it clear how little I truly understood what she's been dealing with, even as I tried to be an empathetic caregiver. As Dr. Silverman noted, I'm still in the acute phase of post-traumatic pain--it hasn't become chronic and hopefully won't. But six weeks has been long enough for me to get a sense of what it means to live with pain and to have to accept the limits that are defined by the energy and the space that the pain consumes. I'm hopeful that my PT will substantially diminish my pain, but I also hope I never forget what it's been like to have pain be such a defining feature of my life.
Photo by Harsha K R. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons
Focused attention is our most precious resource, because 1) it's extremely taxing on our intellectual and emotional capabilities, 2) it can have a amazingly powerful effect on its object, and 3) it can't be subdivided. (We can pay continuous partial attention to multiple objects simultaneously, but we can truly focus on only one object at any given moment.)
Much of what I do as a coach and as an experiential educator at Stanford involves nothing more than devoting my full attention to another person. This is somewhat easier in a one-on-one coaching session with a client or student, and it's somewhat harder in a group setting, but under any circumstances it's a challenging task that's almost always worth the effort.
Why is it challenging? Because even when we're one-on-one, we're bombarded by sensory stimuli and an endless stream of emerging thoughts and emotions that constantly draw our focus inward. The running dialogue we maintain with ourselves exerts an almost irresistible pull on our attention, and it's impossible to ever completely shut it off. And in any group setting not only does the complexity of the data stream increase exponentially, but our awareness of being observed by others who are beyond the sphere of our attention heightens our self-consciousness and adds another layer to our self-talk.
Why is it worth the effort? Because we're so rarely the object of another person's truly focused attention, devoting our full attention to someone can be a novel experience for both of us that in and of itself stimulates something useful in the interaction. The other person feels seen, heard, recognized, validated, appreciated or challenged in ways that partial attention never generates. And as we momentarily quiet our inner voice, we suddenly become aware of so many things that we missed before--not only about the other person and our environment, but also about ourselves. The subtler, more elusive thoughts and feelings that are usually drowned out by the louder currents can now be heard.
How do we do it? Three suggestions:
First, make the distinction between spending time with someone and spending attention on someone. We like to think that our time is precious, but compared to attention, time is cheap. And it's cheap because we can spend time without expending any real effort, and because continuous partial attention allows us to multi-task, flitting among low-intensity activities. So spending time with someone isn't the same thing as spending attention on them (and we're fooling ourselves if we think they won't be able to tell the difference.)
Second, respect how draining it can be to focus our attention for any length of time, and recognize our limits. Devoting our full attention to someone is hard work, and not the sort of work that can be accomplished through sheer force of will. Our reserves of attention are rapidly depleted, and that process accelerates when we're tired or stressed. Sometimes we just don't have it in us to focus our attention, and we have to learn to set boundaries and communicate them clearly and gracefully.
Third, practice. Focusing our attention, like any form of mental control, is a learnable skill. And while we can't simply force ourselves to pay attention for any sustained period, we can increase our stamina in order to pay attention for greater lengths of time and to shorten the recovery period between distractions. But note that many factors in contemporary life pull us in just the opposite direction. Entire industries have been developed to heighten our sense of distraction and keep us in a state of perpetual unrest, and we have to work actively to resist their pull.
Photo by Ed Yourdon. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons
As an executive coach and an experiential educator, every day I collaborate with or observe people giving and receiving feedback. In a number of settings I work with groups whose purpose is improving members' leadership and interpersonal skills, and the primary tool we use is feedback. And a common trait shared by almost every one of the hundreds of people I've worked with over the last eight years is a desire to hear direct, candid feedback. I literally hear people say "Give it to me straight" in almost every group.
But this simple request turns out to be more complicated than it sounds at first. Feedback is one of the most powerful—and one of the fastest—ways to learn how to be more effective in our interactions with others, particularly when it’s honest and straightforward. But effective feedback doesn’t happen spontaneously; it’s critical to learn how to give—and receive—feedback in a way that’s effective in a particular context.
What “Give it to me straight” actually means in practice will vary widely from one relationship to another, and will change within every relationship over time. And an irony I’ve observed over thousands of feedback conversations is that when we first say “Give it to me straight,” we think we’re talking about negative feedback because we imagine that criticism will be painful to hear, but it turns out that truly heartfelt positive feedback can be equally hard to handle. Many people I’ve worked with are actually more uncomfortable receiving direct, candid praise than being criticized.
Giving and receiving feedback effectively are learnable skills, and while the five concepts discussed here may serve as helpful guidelines, it’s important to recognize that we can improve our facility with these skills only by actually trying them out. We can—and should—start in low-risk situations, such as an experiential role-play, a coaching engagement or a friendly relationship. But real growth will require us to get out of our comfort zones and to risk making mistakes when the stakes are higher.
1) Feedback and Social Threat
Most of us find the prospect of a feedback conversation daunting at the best of times, even in the context of a friendly relationship. Hearing someone say “Can I give you some feedback?” is almost guaranteed to elevate our heart rate and raise our blood pressure. These are common signs of a threat response, a cascade of neurological and physiological events that occur when we encounter a situation that we perceive as threatening. Neuroscientists have determined that we respond to threatening social situations in the same way that we respond to actual threats to our physical safety and have coined the term “social threat” to describe these experiences. David Rock is an executive coach who’s made an extensive study of recent neuroscience research to understand its implications for organizational life, and he developed the SCARF Model to characterize interpersonal situations that are likely to trigger a social threat.
SCARF stands for status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness (i.e. the extent to which we perceive others as members of our social group) and fairness. Whenever our status, certainty, autonomy or perception of fairness is diminished, we're more likely to experience a social threat. And an encounter with someone we perceive as unrelated is also more likely to trigger a social threat.
Given these factors, it’s unsurprising that a feedback conversation can be so stressful. Someone presuming to give us feedback is (at least momentarily) occupying a high-status position, and we may feel “demoted” as a result. We don’t know what feedback we’re about to get, so we’re immediately put in a state of uncertainty. Despite our discomfort, we’re likely to feel obligated to listen, so we have less autonomy. These factors are at play in almost every feedback conversation, and if we feel less connected with the other person or if we don’t believe their feedback is fair, then we’re certain to experience the conversation as a social threat.
A threat response predisposes us to act quickly on limited information, and while this classic “fight or flight” behavior is well-adapted to literal threats to our physical safety, it often serves us poorly in interpersonal situations that we perceive as threatening. When we’re in the grip of a threat response, our ability to understand complex information and respond to it thoughtfully is seriously compromised. We seize on what we believe to be the most important data and take action on that basis. While this set of responses surely served us well in our evolutionary environment, it undermines our ability to safely navigate challenging interpersonal situations—such as feedback conversations.
So when we’re preparing to give someone feedback, it’s critical to avoid triggering a social threat. Pay keen attention to the potential for any aspect of the conversation to impact the other person, including such factors as timing, duration, physical location and proximity.
2) Just Enough Emotion
Despite the risk of triggering a social threat inherent in any feedback conversation, one reason interpersonal feedback is such an effective way to learn is because it has the potential to evoke meaningful emotions in the first place. While the strong negative emotions that result from a social threat have the potential to inhibit learning and block communication, emotions play an essential role in our reasoning process. As neuroscientist Antonio Damasio wrote in his influential book, Descartes’ Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain,
[H]uman reason depends on several brain systems, working in concert across many levels of neuronal organization, rather than on a single brain center. Both "high-level" and "low-level" brain regions...cooperate in the making of reason. The lower levels in the neural edifice of reason are the same ones that regulate the processing of emotions and feelings. Emotion, feeling and biological regulation all play a role in human reason. [p xvii]
In addition, emotional experiences resonate more strongly with us and stick more effectively in our memories. As neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux notes, “There is both an upside and a downside to the fact that emotional states make memories stronger. The upside is that we remember our emotional experiences to a greater extent than non-emotional ones. The downside is that we remember our emotional experiences to a greater extent than non-emotional ones.”
So while we have to guard against the risk of triggering a social threat when giving feedback, it’s essential to make effective use of emotion in any feedback conversation, and this means expressing just enough emotion ourselves to trigger sufficient emotion in the other person without going too far. If we express too much emotion, we may trigger a social threat, provoking a hostile or defensive reaction, and ending the dialogue or damaging the relationship. But if we fail to express enough emotion, we significantly diminish the impact of our feedback, resulting in an ongoing cycle of ineffective conversations.
The right balance of emotion is highly situational and will differ widely not only across interpersonal relationships but also according to the issue under discussion, the timing of the conversation, and many other factors. Our ability to find the balance that’s right for any given conversation will depend on our understanding of the other person and our relationship with them as well as on our ability to regulate and express our emotions effectively.
3) Build the Relationship
As noted above, when we feel less connected to another person, an interaction with them is more likely to trigger a social threat. When we need to give feedback to someone who differs from us—not only according to demographic categories, but also as a function of our respective roles—it’s important to be able to establish a sense of relatedness with that person to minimize the risk of social threat. And this work is much more effective when it’s done over time, across a series of interactions, rather than in a desperate—and transparent—attempt to soften the blow before delivering critical feedback.
John Gottman, a social psychologist who’s one of the world’s leading researchers on marriage and relationships, notes that the likelihood of a successful conclusion to a difficult conversation is critically dependent on what he calls “the quality of the friendship” in the relationship, and he defines friendship by the existence of seven factors:
1. Feeling known by the other person.
2. A “culture of appreciation” that nurtures mutual fondness, admiration and respect.
3. Sensitivity and responsiveness to even the most minor bids for attention.
4. The degree of mutual influence.
5. Accepting that some problems are intractable and can’t be solved right now.
6. An awareness that inside those intractable problems is often a deeply personal dream, and a willingness to share those dreams.
7. The creation of shared meaning.
Gottman’s research focuses on married couples and others in committed partnerships, and I’m not suggesting that our working relationships need to rise to that level of intimacy to be successful. But I am suggesting that Gottman’s guidelines for gauging “the quality of the friendship” apply to any relationship, and that they can direct us in our efforts to connect with others, particularly when we’re working across role boundaries and other dimensions of difference.
Finally, Gottman’s research also shows that the ratio of positive to negative interactions in a successful relationship over time is 5:1, even during periods of conflict. This ratio doesn’t apply to a single conversation, nor does it mean that we’re obligated to pay someone five compliments before we can criticize them. But it does emphasize the importance of positive feedback over time as a means of building a successful relationship. (Note that we can run into problems with positive feedback as well.)
4) Play Fair
A certain way to derail a feedback conversation is to trigger a social threat (and a subsequent defensive or hostile reaction) by providing feedback that the other person perceives as unfair or inaccurate. The difficulty is that the concepts of “fair” and “accurate” are inherently subjective. In Chapter 2 of The Interpersonal Dynamics Reader [PDF], David Bradford and Mary Ann Huckabay use the metaphor of “the net” to explain this dynamic:
Most of us act like amateur psychologists in that we try to figure out why others act as they do. If you interrupt me (a behavior) and I feel annoyed (the effect on me), I try and understand why you would do that. So I make an attribution of your motives (it must be that you are inconsiderate)…
As common as this attribution process is, it also can be dysfunctional. Note that my sense-making is a guess. That is my hunch as to why you act the way you do. I am “crossing over the net” from what is my area of expertise (that I am annoyed at your behavior), to your area of expertise (your motives and intentions). My imputation of your motives can always be debated, (“You don't listen.” “Yes, I do.” “No you don't.”) whereas sticking with my own feelings and reactions is never debatable. ( “I felt irritated by your interruption just now.” “You shouldn't feel that way because I didn't mean to interrupt you.” “Perhaps not, but I feel irritated nonetheless.” ) [pp 4-5, emphasis added]
As Bradford and Huckabay make clear, by “crossing the net” and guessing at the other person’s motives and intentions, we succeed in creating a plausible explanation that helps us understand their behavior, but we run the risk of being wrong. Even if we guess right in most circumstances—and we typically do—the challenge in the context of a feedback conversation is that the cost of being wrong is triggering a social threat in the other person and derailing the conversation.
The solution identified by Bradford and Huckabay is to “stay on our side of the net” and stick with what we know for certain—our response to the observed behavior—and avoid making any guesses about the other person’s motives and intentions. This minimizes the risk that our feedback will be perceived as unfair or inaccurate.
5) Give It To Me Straight?
While an increased emphasis on interpersonal feedback in many groups and organizations can provide us with more opportunities to test and improve our abilities to give and receive feedback effectively, it can also have some unintended consequences. A “feedback-rich” culture can be one in which people feel compelled to participate in feedback conversations even when they’re not truly prepared to do so. Feedback givers can feel an unjustified sense of authority and objectivity, failing to realize that feedback says as much about the giver (what we notice, what we comment upon, how we say it) as it does about the recipient. Feedback recipients can feel obligated to change in response to critical feedback, even when it conflicts with their better judgment.
So while I’m a confirmed believer in the benefits of feedback, I also encourage people to stop and think carefully when stepping into a feedback conversation, particularly before responding to a request to “Give it to me straight.” While it’s important to provide honest and direct feedback in response to such a request, it’s also important to consider the overall context—including the surrounding group or organizational culture—in order to meet such a request effectively.
Update/Postscript: I'm reminded of my recent comment to Whitney Johnson: "At the heart of every piece of critical feedback is a dream of a better way to interact with each other." This helps explain my emphasis on the emotional aspects of feedback conversations--when we're unhappy or upset with someone and want them to change, the purpose of any critical feedback we might deliver is to turn that "dream of a better way of interacting" into reality. But if we simply "give it to them straight" and fail to effectively manage the emotions evoked by the conversation--either by repressing them or by venting them full-force--we're much less likely to achieve that goal.
Thanks to Carole Robin, David Bradford, Mary Ann Huckabay and Scott Bristol for introducing me to many of these concepts and for the opportunity to explore them further while working with them at the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Photo by rick. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
"I have plenty of time--I'll get it done this weekend!"
"Dammit, it's way too nice out to stay inside and work--I'm outta here!"
"I'll get started as soon as I clean the house. How can I write surrounded by all this clutter?"
"Why did I ever say yes to this project? I'm an idiot."
(Sighs, sits down and opens laptop.)
Photo by Thomas Abbs. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
"We come from the stars; we're not made of microchips." -Erica Peng
We all require some degree of what I'll call romance in our lives. I'm not necessarily referring to romantic love for another person, although some relationships certainly qualify. I'm talking more broadly about any passionate yearning for someone, someplace, something, some way of being that fulfills us in a way that's hard to understand, let alone explain to others. Some romances may be logical on a certain level, but ultimately they are their own justification.
But as uniquely fulfilling as romance can be, it's also insufficient. We have to balance the romantic with its converse, the practical. Because romances justify themselves, they can consume vast amounts of resources as we pursue them, but practical things must meet a different standard. They must be justified by the returns they generate in exchange for our investment of resources (e.g. time, money, effort, attention). And as in any healthy market, these exchanges are a sign of value creation on both sides, and, at their best, a source of meaning and purpose.
When our lives are too airily romantic, we may be free to choose our path, but we lose traction and fail to make any actual progress. But when our lives are too stolidly practical, we carve out ruts that become impossible to escape, and although we're making steady progress we can't change course even when we're headed in the wrong direction.
There's no balance that's right for everyone; we all have to find our own level. But it's important to be aware of the internal and external forces in our lives--formative experiences, mental models of what's desirable or necessary, obligations and commitments (both real and imagined)--that might pull us away from our optimal balance in one direction or another.
My dad likes to joke that I've "tacked my way through life," and (although I can't stand being in a boat) it's an apt metaphor. I've pursued some major romances--leaving college to go to art school, following a girl to New England, packing three careers into 16 years, and eventually leaving management to launch a coaching practice. And at alternate intervals I've made some very practical decisions--leaving art school to go back to college, going into management to gain hands-on experience, getting an MBA, and returning to Stanford to join the business school's coaching staff. (I also married the girl, which was both romantic and practical.)
I haven't taken any daunting leaps in a while, and I certainly don't feel that I'm in a rut, so it's possible that in my 40s I've found my optimal balance. (Not that I've been in a hurry--as Seneca wrote, "It takes the whole of life to learn how to live.") I know I'm unusually privileged in that my work as a coach is both a romantic passion--a true vocation, a life's work, not a job--and a practical profession that pays the bills. But I don't take anything in the present for granted, because we all continue to change even when we think we're done.
For now, I'm just going to enjoy this feeling of practical romance.
Update: That last line strikes me as too pat. I am privileged to enjoy a certain balance in my work as a coach--it fulfills my romantic desires to make a difference in the world, to connect with people and to feel a sense of meaning and purpose, while also meeting my primary practical needs. And yet I don't feel quite at peace, either. I'm restless by nature--I tend to "repot" myself every seven years, and it's not lost on me that I'm in my seventh year back at Stanford. I know I'm not in a rut--at least not the sort of rut that's prompted me to take those major leaps noted above--because coaching does feel like my life's work. It occurs to me that I don't want anything different--and in that sense I have found the right balance between the practical and the romantic--but I do want more. Of what, I'm in the process of discovering.
The coach in me can't help but ask: Where are you in all this? What are your romantic yearnings? How are you fulfilling them? How are you neglecting them? What are your practical needs? And how are you fulfilling (or neglecting) them? How does the current balance between the two feel? If you could change something, what would it be? What's holding you back?
Thanks to my friend and colleague Erica Peng for the conversation that led to this post.
Photo by Bill Mill. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
In 5 words or fewer, what does "power" mean to you?
I define power (and seek to exercise it) differently in three specific contexts: Within myself, in a relationship with another person, and in a group:
1. Power within myself is the ability to Express AND regulate my emotions.
As I've noted over the years, emotions are critical to effective performance and reasoning, among many other tasks. And much of the work I've done to improve my own effectiveness, as a coach and simply as a person, has been focused on becoming more skilled both at expressing my emotions, so that my impact is aligned with my intentions, and at regulating my emotions, so that while feeling them fully I choose when and how to express them in order to meet my needs. As you might imagine, this is an imperfect process at best, and I am most definitely a work in progress.
2. Power in a relationship is being Open to each other's influence.
In 2008 I defined "interpersonal power" as "the ability to modify another person's state," and while that still seems true, it also seems insufficient. Someone with power over me may modify my "state," i.e. my external condition, without affecting my attitude, beliefs or feelings. This is how ineffective leaders so often fail: they obtain compliance without actually changing anyone's mind, and so their "power" extends only as far as their ability to monitor and police. Real interpersonal power exists only when any changes we seek to effect in another person are persistent, and that happens only when both parties are truly open to each other's influence.
3. Power in a group is feeling Free to speak my truth.
A group's power is an aspect of its overall culture, not a function of its leadership. A powerful group is one in which every member feels free to voice their perspective, even--and especially--when the leadership is ineffective. A group in which members feel prohibited from speaking up will inevitably weaken, no matter how strong its leadership. And while effective leaders will support a culture that encourages members to speak their truth, each member will ultimately have to exercise that power for themselves.
Photo by Maria Ly. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
I'm not well-read in the classics, but a few pieces have been important sources of meaning to me over the years--most notably Marcus Aurelius's Meditations. There are a number of concepts in Stoic philosophy that I find relevant in my work as a coach--and in my personal life: acceptance of limitations and failure, resilience in overcoming challenges, humility in success.
In my ramblings I've come across a number of references to Seneca's essay, On the Shortness of Life, and the other day I decided to finally look it up and read the whole thing.
Damn--talk about a wake-up call. It really stirred me up, and while it's too early to say just what impact it'll have on my life, it's safe to say I'll be re-reading it. A few of the passages I found most striking are below, and you can find the complete text at the Forum Romanum. (Also, here's a longer series of excerpts [PDF].)
“On the Shortness of Life,” Lucius Annaeus Seneca
Translated by John W. Basore, Loeb Classical Library, London: William Heinemann, 19321. The majority of mortals, Paulinus, complain bitterly of the spitefulness of Nature, because we are born for a brief span of life, because even this space that has been granted to us rushes by so speedily and so swiftly that all save a very few find life at an end just when they are getting ready to live... It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given in sufficiently generous measure to allow the accomplishment of the very greatest things if the whole of it is well invested. But when it is squandered in luxury and carelessness, when it is devoted to no good end, forced at last by the ultimate necessity we perceive that it has passed away before we were aware that it was passing. So it is—the life we receive is not short, but we make it so, nor do we have any lack of it, but are wasteful of it...
3. ...No one is to be found who is willing to distribute his money, yet among how many does each one of us distribute his life! In guarding their fortune men are often closefisted, yet, when it comes to the matter of wasting time, in the case of the one thing in which it is right to be miserly, they show themselves most prodigal... What, then, is the reason of this? You live as if you were destined to live forever, no thought of your frailty ever enters your head, of how much time has already gone by you take no heed. You squander time as if you drew from a full and abundant supply, though all the while that day which you bestow on some person or thing is perhaps your last... You will hear many men saying: "After my fiftieth year I shall retire into leisure, my sixtieth year shall release me from public duties." And what guarantee, pray, have you that your life will last longer? Who will suffer your course to be just as you plan it? Are you not ashamed to reserve for yourself only the remnant of life, and to set apart for wisdom only that time which cannot be devoted to any business? How late it is to begin to live just when we must cease to live! What foolish forgetfulness of mortality to postpone wholesome plans to the fiftieth and sixtieth year, and to intend to begin life at a point to which few have attained!...
7. ...[E]verybody agrees that no one pursuit can be successfully followed by a man who is busied with many things...since the mind, when its interests are divided, takes in nothing very deeply, but rejects everything that is, as it were, crammed into it. There is nothing the busy man is less busied with than living: there is nothing that is harder to learn... It takes the whole of life to learn how to live, and—what will perhaps make you wonder more—it takes the whole of life to learn how to die...
8. I am often filled with wonder when I see some men demanding the time of others and those from whom they ask it most indulgent. Both of them fix their eyes on the object of the request for time, neither of them on the time itself; just as if what is asked were nothing, what is given, nothing. Men trifle with the most precious thing in the world; but they are blind to it because it is an incorporeal thing, because it does not come beneath the sight of the eyes, and for this reason it is counted a very cheap thing—nay, of almost no value at all...
9. Can anything be sillier than the point of view of...those who
boast of their foresight? They keep themselves very busily engaged in order
that they may be able to live better; they spend life in making ready to live!
They form their purposes with a view to the distant future; yet postponement is
the greatest waste of life; it deprives them of each day as it comes, it
snatches from them the present by promising something hereafter. The greatest
hindrance to living is expectancy, which depends upon the morrow and wastes today…
All things that are still to come lie in uncertainty; live straightaway!...
20. And so when you see a man often wearing the robe of office, when you see one whose name is famous in the Forum, do not envy him; those things are bought at the price of life. They will waste all their years, in order that they may have one year reckoned by their name... Meantime, while they rob and are being robbed, while they break up each other's repose, while they make each other wretched, their life is without profit, without pleasure, without any improvement of the mind. No one keeps death in view, no one refrains from far-reaching hopes; some men, indeed, even arrange for things that lie beyond life—huge masses of tombs and dedications of public works and...ostentatious funerals. But, in very truth, the funerals of such men ought to be conducted by the light of torches and wax tapers, as though they had lived but the tiniest span.
 When this essay was written—around A.D. 49—Paulinus was praefectus annonae, the official who managed Rome’s grain supply, and an important civic figure. He is believed to have been a close relative of Seneca's wife.
 The Roman year was dated by the names of the two annual consuls.
 i.e., as if they were children, whose funerals took place by night
Photo by kris krüg. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
An opportunity presents itself. It's intriguing, but you're not sure if you should take it. So frame it this way:
1) What will this allow me to do that I can't do now? (And what am I willing to give up in exchange?)
2) What will this prevent me from doing that I would miss? (And what am I not willing to give up?)
Photo by Petros Pevel. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
1) Learn to access our emotions more fully, express emotions to others more effectively, and allow ourselves to become emotionally "flooded."
2) Learn to manage ourselves more effectively, interact productively with others and make better decisions while experiencing strong emotions.
3) Learn to de-escalate strong emotions when flooded and find efficient and healthy ways of soothing ourselves.
There's an obvious arc to this emotional journey, one that involves pushing ourselves to reach new heights, navigating those peaks under difficult conditions, and safely returning to lower altitudes. Looked at from this perspective, coaching (and experiential learning more generally) can be seen as emotional mountaineering. I help my clients and students make this journey by traveling alongside them and experiencing it with them--I suppose I'm an emotional sherpa :-)
This metaphor may make sense if you've done meaningful work with a coach or in an experiential learning environment--and if not, I imagine it prompts some questions:
Why so much emphasis on emotions?
The huge gap between the role emotions actually play and how they're commonly understood would be amusing if it didn't have such negative consequences. The popular view is that emotions are irrational impulses that cloud our judgment, and we need to repress them in order for rational thought to prevail. But recent neurological research has made it quite clear that emotions are an essential element in the reasoning process. As USC neuroscientist Antonio Damasio wrote in 1994 in his influential book Descartes' Error: Emotion, Reason and the Human Brain,
[H]uman reason depends on several brain systems, working in concert across many levels of neuronal organization, rather than on a single brain center. Both "high-level" and "low-level" brain regions...cooperate in the making of reason.
The lower levels in the neural edifice of reason are the same ones that regulate the processing of emotions and feelings, along with the body functions necessary for an organism's survival... Emotion, feeling and biological regulation all play a role in human reason. [p xvii]
More specifically, emotions allows us to make decisions much more efficiently than would be possible through logic alone. Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux of NYU notes in The Emotional Brain that the neurological pathways that process emotions are literally twice as fast as those that process cognitions.
This isn't to say that our emotions never lead us astray; of course they do, particularly strong negative emotions such as fear or anger--see below. LeDoux calls the emotional pathways in the brain a "quick and dirty processing system," one whose signals can readily be misinterpreted. But if we habitually repress our emotions we never improve our ability to discern the signal from the noise, to determine which emotional responses are helpful in a given set of circumstances and which are counterproductive.
Feeling our emotions more fully also allows us to express them more effectively with others. Emotions are the levers of influence, and our ability to inspire, comfort, motivate, or threaten is dependent on our ability to tap into and convey the right emotions in the right way at the right time.
All this work is challenging enough when we're calm and reflective; it's infinitely more difficult when we're hurt, angry, upset or excited--this is why it's important to allow ourselves to become emotionally "flooded," so that we can practice these skills under duress.
What do you mean by "flooding"?
"Flooding" is a term employed by the social psychologist and therapist John Gottman to describe the condition of heightened emotional arousal that creates a sense of overwhelm, typically occurring when we're subjected to criticism or feel attacked in some way.
We experience flooding as a host of physiological symptoms--such as rapid heart rate, elevated blood pressure, shallow breathing, or sweaty palms--that result from increased levels of certain neurotransmitters in the brain, most notably adrenaline and cortisol. These are the biological markers of a "threat response," or what's often called a "fight-or-flight" reaction, that usually accompany strong negative emotions.
Executive coach David Rock has made an extensive study of the implications of recent neuroscience research for organizational life, and his work highlights three findings with special relevance here: First, our brains respond to social situations that we perceive as threatening in the same way that we respond to literal threats to our physical safety. Second, we experience these social threats most frequently at work. And finally, when we're experiencing a threat response our capacity for analytic thought, creative insight and problem-solving is substantially diminished.
This cognitive impairment is one of the primary reasons for popular misconceptions about the role of emotions noted above; we've all made bad decisions while in the grip of a threat response. But rather than seeking to suppress our negative emotions--an effort that rarely works and often leads to higher stress levels--we're much better served by strategies that allow us to both 1) reframe situations so that we experience them as less threatening in the first place and 2) increase our level of comfort with strong emotions and our ability to manage ourselves while flooded.
This is why it's so important to allow ourselves to feel strong emotions and even become flooded in the safe confines of a coaching session or experiential learning environment, where we can step slightly outside our comfort zone without putting ourselves at risk.
So what does this look like in practice?
To be clear, the majority of my conversations with clients and students are upbeat and even lighthearted. I'm a firm believer in the value of focusing on the positive, doing more of what's working, and seeking greater levels of happiness and fulfillment to support our professional effectiveness. And my own effectiveness as a coach depends on establishing a foundation of safety, trust and intimacy, whether on a one-on-one basis in a coaching engagement or among the members of a group in other settings.
But it's important that we also make room for a wide range of emotions in order to be able to do the work outlined above. This means very different things for each of us, of course, and I don't take a one-size-fits-all approach. I try to find the right balance of challenge and support that's called for in every relationship, but a common theme is a willingness to take some risks in order to learn and grow, and this inevitably involves stepping into some stronger emotions--from amusement to elation, from annoyance to anger, from embarrassment to shame, from disappointment to grief.
My experience in thousands of coaching sessions and group meetings over the years is that as we expand the range of emotions we can express in these safe settings, we increase our ability to make effective use of emotion in "the real world," where the risks are higher and the returns are greater. To return to the mountaineering metaphor, by pushing ourselves to new heights we become more sure-footed under stress and increase our trust in our ability to return safely.Thanks to Mary Ann Huckabay, Carole Robin and Scott Bristol.
Photo by Mitch Barrie. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
The Leadership Case for Self-Coaching
Helping people learn to self-coach is central to my approach to coaching. This isn't a noble ideal; it's a result of the fact that I see my clients and students for just 1% of their working hours--the remaining 99% of the time they're coaching themselves through every decision and interaction, and my effectiveness as a coach is reflected in their effectiveness at self-coaching.
A similar dynamic exists in almost all organizations today, especially in fields comprised of knowledge workers, in Peter Drucker's phrase. Knowledge workers rarely, if ever, perform a task under the direct supervision of a leader or manager; time spent together by superiors and subordinates is almost always dedicated to reviews of work already completed or planning for work yet to be done. This reflects the impact of knowledge work on traditional org chart relationships and workplace hierarchies. As Drucker writes in Management Challenges of the 21st Century,
[K]nowledge workers are not subordinates; they are "associates." For, once beyond the apprentice stage, knowledge workers must know more about their job than their boss does--or else they are no good at all. In fact, that they know more about their job than anybody else in the organization is part of the definition of knowledge workers...
To be sure, these associates are "subordinates" in that they depend on
the "boss" when it comes to being hired or fired, promoted, appraised
and so on. But in his or her own job the superior can perform only if
these so-called subordinates take responsibility for educating
him or her... In turn, these "subordinates" depend on the superior for
direction. They depend on the superior to tell them what the "score"
is. [pp 18, 20]
Because knowledge workers require (and desire) little or no direct supervision and typically know more about the work to be done than their leaders and managers, effective leadership has come to look a lot like coaching--which is one of the primary reasons that the new business school curriculum we've rolled out at Stanford over the past decade puts so much emphasis on coaching, interpersonal skills and experiential learning.
And just as my effectiveness as a coach is expanded dramatically by my ability to help others self-coach, leaders can enhance their effectiveness by helping people learn to coach themselves. "Coaching" doesn't need to be a formal activity that occurs between a superior and a subordinate in specially designated conversations, but rather can be a means by which knowledge workers guide themselves through day-to-day activities and over the span of their careers.
Self-coaching can't replace the experience of working directly with a personal coach like myself or being actively coached by a manager, but those opportunities are time- and resource-intensive experiences that are constrained by an organization's budget for coaching and a leader's availability. Effective self-coaching can augment an organization's investment in coaching by outside professionals and internal leaders alike. Further, helping people self-coach is a natural fit with knowledge work's emphasis on self-management and flat hierarchies.
So what does this look like in practice? Here are three principles to bear in mind:
1. Meta-Work (Meta-What?)
Helping someone learn to self-coach primarily means coaching them in a transparent way, so they're aware of the steps being taken and can replicate them later, both on their own and with others--a process I refer to as "meta-work." As I wrote in 2006, meta-work is any effort we undertake in order to work more effectively. Meta-work occurs whenever we step back from a task to ask ourselves "Why do we do this task this way?" or even "Why do we do this task at all?"
In a self-coaching context, meta-work involves leaving time at the end of a conversation to debrief the conversation itself and understand why it was helpful (or why it wasn't), and identifying specific aspects of the leader's coaching approach (both in any given conversation and over the arc of the relationship) so that the other person can apply those techniques on their own. Note that this isn't extra work added to the leader's plate--it's work to be done by the other person with the leader. Our responsibility as a leader is to manage the agenda so that the immediate issues under discussion don't consume all the available time.
2. More Questions, Less Advice
Our first helping impulse is typically to offer advice, and this is particularly true when we're in a leadership role because our mental models of leadership often involve "knowing the answers." And at times effective coaching requires providing some direct advice or feedback. But it's much more useful in a coaching context to ask questions, especially at the outset. As longtime MIT professor Edgar Schein writes in Helping,
The first intervention must always be what I am calling humble inquiry, even if the inquiry is merely careful observation and listening in the first few minutes of the encounter. The critical point is not to stereotype the situation even if it looks like something familiar. [pp 66-7]
Schein notes that the first trap for a "helper" in any helping relationship is dispensing wisdom prematurely; it's essential to defer offering advice or answering questions and shift the responsibility for providing answers back to the person seeking help.
The rationale here is threefold: First, we're more likely to follow up on ideas that we generate ourselves; even when we're accept advice we believe to be sound, we're less likely to act on it. Second, by definition knowledge workers have more information at their disposal than their leaders, and questions will help surface that information more effectively than advice. And finally, while providing answers may make us feel useful in the short run, over time it inhibits the other person's ability to find answers for themselves; asking questions is a much more effective way to help others learn to self-coach.
3. Empathy, Empathy, Empathy
Grant McCracken, an anthropologist who consults to corporate clients, makes the strategic case for empathy in Chief Culture Officer:
In the twentieth century, the corporation was so large it created its own weather system. General Motors, IBM and Coca-Cola could shape the world to their will. And in this world it was enough to be really analytically smart. Now we have to know the world outside the corporation. We have to know worlds alien to our own. We have to know worlds that proceed according to other assumptions. Without empathy, these worlds are opaque to us. [p 128]
This is even more important at the interpersonal level; without empathy--the ability not only to understand another person's thoughts but also to vicariously experience their emotions--their world remains alien and opaque to us. Empathy makes coaching possible.
Another key to the importance of empathy can be found in the work of Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and best-selling author who's spent years studying the topics of vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. Brown defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." Empathy, in turn, is "the antidote to shame."
The relevance for leaders in a coaching context is that almost everyone seeking help is experiencing some form of shame, even if it's just mild embarrassment--and the more serious the problem, the deeper the shame. Feeling and expressing empathy is critical to helping the other person defuse their shame or embarrassment and begin thinking creatively about solutions.
But note that our habitual expressions of empathy can sometimes be counterproductive. Michael Sahota, a coach in Toronto who works with groups of software developers and product managers, offers a concise synopsis of Brown's work on the traps we fall into when trying to express empathy: "My problem's bigger," "Look on the bright side," and leaping to problem-solving while ignoring the emotions generated by the problem.
The solution is to recognize these responses as traps, catch ourselves before we fall into them and instead truly empathize: Start with inquiry--see above, work to understand the other person's situation and--even more importantly--experience their feelings. We may not identify with their particular situation, and it may not evoke the same feelings in us, but we've surely had those feelings at some point. Tap into them and find a useful way to share them. All this is easy to write about and hard to do, but it's worth noting that recent research indicates empathy can be learned.
The ultimate value from a self-coaching perspective is that people who are met with empathy begin to feel empathy for themselves, a critical step in the process of effectively analyzing and learning from our mistakes.
More on Self-Coaching:
Engaging Ourselves: Consistent self-coaching starts with self-engagement, which is both a fundamental attitude toward ourselves and an ongoing dialogue.
Goal-Setting: The goals we set for ourselves have a significant influence on our performance; that said, goals can support our growth and development, and they can also get in the way.
Self-Awareness: I define self-awareness as both a heightened in-the-moment perception of our physiological and emotional responses and a growing understanding of who we are as individuals based on those responses.
Taking Action: The changes that occur in a self-coaching process take the form of a series of moments when we intervene and act--or choose not to act.
Values and Vision: Self-coaching occurs in a context defined by our personal values and our vision for ourselves. (And when someone's values or vision diverge from that of the leader or their organization, it's critical to
Accepting Ourselves: Most high-achieving knowledge workers are their own worst critics, and a key coaching role leaders can play is helping people feel a sense of self-compassion.
Photo by crabchick. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
I was recently asked to help a team prepare to tackle some challenging work more effectively. I was motivated to say yes for professional and personal reasons, but I didn't fully think through the necessary conditions for success, and I made some critical errors in planning and delivery. In a word, I failed.
It wasn't a complete failure--I'm confident that some learning occurred--but I certainly failed to live up to my own standards for success. I've reflected on what I could have done differently, and I've learned a lot--but perhaps the most valuable thing I've learned is the extent to which I've developed a growth mindset. As Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck notes,
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.
The relevance here is that I'm not interpreting this failure as a character flaw or a fundamental inability to do good work. I'm fully aware that I take on projects like this all the time, and most of them turn out quite successfully. This isn't to say that I'm ducking responsibility for my failure or ignoring it in any way. I'm very clear about the mistakes I made and what I'll do differently going forward.
I'm reminded that in 2011 Jonah Lehrer reviewed a study by Michigan State's Jason Moser that applied Dweck's concept of mindset while assessing the neurological processes involved in learning from mistakes:
It turned out that those subjects with a growth mindset were significantly better at learning from their mistakes... Most interesting, though, was the EEG data, which demonstrated that those with a growth mindset generated a much larger [error positivity] signal, indicating increased attention to their mistakes… What’s more, this increased...signal was nicely correlated with improvement after error, implying that the extra awareness was paying dividends in performance. Because the subjects were thinking about what they got wrong, they learned how to get it right...
Moser's study suggests that a growth mindset allows us to pay more attention to our mistakes because we're less upset when confronted with the evidence of those mistakes, which allows us to study them more closely and learn more as a result. In the case of my own recent experience, the outcome is that I'm able to calmly assess my failure, learn from it and move on. I'm disappointed, to be sure, but I'm not upset about it in a way that might have negatively affected other projects or aspects of my life.
By no means am I suggesting that I've mastered this process--it doesn't take much work to envision a failure that would be extremely upsetting. But at the same time it's worth noting that the work I've done over the years has resulted in a greater sense of resilience and an increased capacity to face up to--and learn from--my failures.
Photo by Mikel Ortega. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
I was talking recently with a friend who's considering where to focus his time and energy as he builds his coaching and consulting practice. He's seeking not only to support his own efforts, but also to connect with a community of like-minded people working on leadership, professional development, personal growth and related issues.
Our conversation led me to reflect on the people who command my attention in this regard, people who who consistently maintain my interest through their combination of...
- thoughtful writing
- in a personal voice
- with a sense of community
- and a well-designed web presence.
I came up with the list below of 32 people (alphabetized by first name) who fulfill these criteria, and after sharing it with my friend I thought I'd post it here to express my thanks for all they do to contribute to my own learning and development. It's not intended to be an exhaustive list--I know I'll regret leaving someone off--and there's nothing special about 32; these are just the first people who came to mind in this process, and I preferred that to randomly choosing 25 or 50 or whatever:
London-based de Botton is...a working philosopher? I don't really know what to call him, but I know I've benefited from his guidance.
NYC writer Kreamer's It's Always Personal: Navigating Emotion in the New Workplace deftly balances first-person experience with recent research.
Murphy Paul is amazingly productive writer based in New Haven, CT whose articles, posts and tweets have a particular focus on how we learn.
Markman is a prof of psychology and marketing at UT Austin, whose work explores thinking, decision making and motivation.
Simmons is a prof at the B-school of the University of Nevada, Reno who integrates topics like personal branding into his courses on leadership and organizational behavior.
Oestreich is a coach and consultant based outside Seattle who's one of the very best writers we have on the subjects of leadership and organizational life; it was a privilege to be interviewed by him.
10. David Rock (@davidrock101)
McGonigal is a psychologist and lecturer at Stanford whose work focuses on translating findings from medicine and neuroscience into strategies for personal development.
17. Maria Konnikova (@mkonnikova)
Burkeman is a British journalist based in NYC whose recent book The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can't Stand Positive Thinking is simply brilliant.
23. Pam Fox Rollin (@PamFR)
Peters is a well-known management thinker (and Stanford GSB alum); what you may not know is how effectively this longtime author makes use of social media.
Bock is an indefatigable blogger and ghostwriter in Charlotte, NC who has plenty of good advice for fellow writers.
32. Whitney Johnson (@johnsonwhitney)
Boston-based investor and author Johnson translates her business acumen into insights on personal growth, innovation and leadership.
Photo by dpika. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
I've been working with someone who's in a leadership role but isn't as motivated as he'd like to be. He's doing a perfectly fine job, but it's not meaningful, in the way we feel when a task truly inspires us. Although there's nothing tragic about this person's situation, reflecting on it I was reminded of Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. As I've noted before (under circumstances that were indeed tragic), Frankl identifies three ways in which we can discover meaning: "(1) by creating a work or doing a deed; (2) by experiencing something or encountering someone; and (3) by the attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering. The first, by way of achievement or accomplishment, is quite obvious. The second and third need further elaboration."
No one's suffering here, thankfully, so at least in this context I can set aside Frankl's third option--but his discussion of the second path to meaning offers advice that I find both profound and practical:
Love is the only way to grasp another human being in the innermost core of his personality. No one can become fully aware of the essence of another human being unless he loves him. By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features of the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualized but yet ought to be actualized. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualize these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true...
If that's not a powerful definition of leadership, I don't know what is. (It's a damn good definition of coaching as well.) To fulfill Frankl's vision of helping others realize their fullest potential, we have to see that potential within them. And to see that full potential, we have to truly understand them--we have to "become aware of their essence." And to do that, we have to love them.
Love is a big word and a frightening one, and we often hesitate to use it in the professional realm, at least in any meaningful way. I suspect that the problem lies with our narrow definition of the term--we hear "love" and automatically think of romantic love, or familial love, and it seems embarrassing or even inappropriate to apply the term to our professional relationships. But in the best of those relationships it's love we feel--not romantic love or familial love, but love nonetheless, and as leaders our ability to summon and express that love can be a powerful force.
I've had the privilege of working with a number of good, very good and truly great leaders in my life, both in my 15-year career before becoming a coach and over the last eight years with my clients and students. The good ones are passionate, but it's not quite love. The very good ones do feel love--for their team, for the work, for life--but they can't quite bring themselves to say it out loud and fully express the feeling. The great ones feel it, and everyone around them knows it and benefits as a result.
At its core leading is an act of love. It's the ability to love those around us in a way that allows us to understand them, to see their full potential, and to enable that potential to be realized. Can we lead this way 24/7? Can we live this way every day? No--at least I certainly can't. There are plenty of days when love is the furthest thing from my mind, and it's all I can do to be civil. But I've experienced it often enough to know how effective I am when I feel it--and even more so when I'm able to convey it to those around me.
Returning to the leader noted above, having considered his struggle to find a deeper source of meaning in his work, I asked him: What form of love might you feel for your people? How might you tap into it and express it? What might you see in them as a result? And what might you do then?
Photo by David Goehring. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
Whitney Johnson and Tara Mohr recently co-authored Women Need to Realize Work Isn't School, a powerful call to action containing five straightforward guidelines that challenge women to re-think their approach to professional success:
1. Figure out how to challenge and influence authority.
2. Prepare, but also learn how to improvise.
3. Find effective forms of self-promotion.
4. Welcome a less proscribed, full of surprise, career path.
5. Go for being respected, not just liked.
It's a brilliant piece of writing, and I intend to refer to it regularly in my work with clients and students at Stanford (where today the MBA Class of 2012 is just 39% women).
I want to augment Johnson and Mohr's perspective with two points: First, while I firmly agree that these five issues affect women more often and more severely than men, they certainly affect men as well. In my own professional development I've wrestled with each of these issues, and while I had an easier path as a man, it was nevertheless an intense struggle. (And it still is--I'm not suggesting that I've permanently resolved these issues for myself, just that I've addressed them and made what feels like meaningful progress over the years.)
And as I reflect on my male clients and MBA students, my sense is that every one of them is coping with one or more of these issues. From my perspective Johnson and Mohr have identified a critical set of universal challenges we all face in professional life, and they're shining a necessary spotlight on the unique difficulties faced by women in surmounting them.
Second, while these strategies point out the ways in which women can often undermine themselves and suggest useful alternatives, my experience as a coach tells me that simply knowing what we should do is rarely sufficient motivation on its own. In order to take effective action, we have to acknowledge and address the emotions that get stirred up by the prospect of doing so.
Any of us--women and men--who wrestle with the issues above can use Johnson and Mohr's call to action as a starting point to begin to understand the mental models that hold us back. And yet I suspect that sustained progress will depend on our willingness to understand ourselves at an even deeper level--for example, how our emotions affect our reasoning and decision-making or our performance under stress.
When we find ourselves acting in opposition to Johnson and Mohr's guidelines, it's likely that emotional factors are at play. Habitually deferring to authority, failing to improvise, rejecting appropriate credit for our performance, turning down surprise opportunities, focusing on being liked while failing to command respect--these are all professional missteps with a profound emotional dimension to them. Even as we're making such a misstep, we know it's the wrong thing to do, but somehow it feels better, safer, less risky to make the suboptimal choice.
So once our awareness has been raised and we know what we should do, our fundamental struggle in addressing these issues may be acknowledging and overcoming the anxiety, the embarrassment, the shame, the fear that well up when we contemplate taking that bold step. This is the complex and difficult work of self-coaching: engaging ourselves, understanding ourselves, and ultimately accepting ourselves even as we strive to do better.
Photo by Renato Ganoza. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
We know it's going to be a difficult conversation because we keep putting it off. We know it's going to be difficult because we feel unsettled when we think about it. We know it's going to be difficult because we're not sure it's going to end well. What could we do to make it easier and increase the likelihood of success?
I recently wrote about how we can alternately connect with or control others in the process of managing a difficult relationship. Many of the connecting and controlling strategies we might employ involve initiating a difficult conversation or behaviors we might exhibit during such a conversation, such as active listening or expressing anger.
In Part 2 of this essay I'll talk more about those in-the-moment behaviors and the internal dynamics that support (or undermine) them, but first I want to reflect on what we might call setting the table: tactical steps and external factors to consider before initiating a difficult conversation.
In my work as a coach I regularly help my clients and MBA students at Stanford prepare for any number of conversations like this: firing an employee who's not working out, sharing critical feedback with a close colleague, pushing back against an unreasonable superior, having a heart-to-heart with a friend who's struggling. I see five key dimensions to difficult conversations--Relationship, Timing, Duration, Place and Space--and within each one there are multiple questions we can ask ourselves in order to prepare:
Who is this person to me, and who am I to them? What is our status relative to each other, both formally and informally? What authority or influence do I have over them? What authority or influence do they have over me? How will these factors affect my invitation (or my request or my command) to speak with this person?
Are we engaged in an ongoing dialogue, or will this conversation be something new for us? How will that affect their response to the conversation? (And how do I want this conversation to impact the relationship? Deepen it? Challenge it? End it?)
When should the conversation occur? What time of day? What day of the week? What other time horizons merit consideration? (And am I rushing things to get it over with, or dragging my feet in the hope that the issue will magically be resolved before I need to deal with it?)
What will I and the other person be doing immediately before and immediately after the conversation? What timing will allow both myself and the other person to be in the best possible frame of mind for this conversation?
What if the other person initiates the conversation before I expect it to occur? What are the pros and cons of deferring? What are the pros and cons of seizing the moment? (And if I choose to defer, how can I do so gracefully? If I choose to seize the moment, what do I want to be most mindful of in that moment?)
How much time should I allot for the conversation? (And is that a realistic assessment, or is that how much time I hope it will take?)
Do either of us have a hard stop at the end of this conversation? Do we need to keep track of time? If so, can I share that responsibility with the other person, or is it mine alone? What tools might be available--a phone, a watch, a clock? (And how much of a buffer should I leave between the figural "end" of the conversation and the literal moment either of us will need to move on to our next obligation?)
What if the conversation goes much better (or worse) than I expect? How good (or bad) will it have to be for me to ignore my schedule in order to continue the conversation?
Where should the conversation take place? Would a formal setting like an office or a sit-down restaurant provide some useful social constraints, or would it feel too stifling? Would an informal setting like a cafe or at home be helpfully relaxing, or would it feel too unbounded? If there's a location in which this conversation would normally take place, will that predictability be comforting or stultifying? (And should it be on my turf, or their turf, or on neutral ground?)
What social setting would be optimal? How much privacy will we need? Will the presence of other people be helpful or distracting?
What other environmental factors might be in play? Will any visual distractions be in my line of sight or theirs? Will ambient noise affect the conversation? Will there be any physical discomforts that could make it hard to focus? (And if any of these factors change in the middle of the conversation, what am I prepared to do to deal with them?)
How should we be oriented toward each other? Should we be across a table, or next to each other, or on adjacent sides? Should there even be a table? (And should we even be seated? What would it be like to hold the conversation while taking a walk together?)
What proximity is optimal, given the relationship and our respective preferences for personal space? How close is too close? How far is too far? Would I be better served by increasing or decreasing that distance? (And would it be comforting or inappropriate to touch the other person? If it would be comforting, am I prepared to reach out to them?)
Perhaps the most important step in setting the table for a difficult conversation is recognizing the value--and the legitimacy--of this form of preparation. In some cases we're so distracted by the challenge of even having the conversation that we fail to consider the many ways in which we might prepare, and it's helpful to simply pause and remind ourselves of our options before we initiate the conversation.
But at a deeper level we may feel that it's somehow illegitimate to prepare in this way. We may feel that we lack the authority to influence these factors, or we may feel that such details are too minute to worry about, or we may feel that "staging" a conversation in this way detracts from its authenticity. And that's a good point at which to pause before Part 2 of this essay, which will discuss the internal and emotional aspects of preparing for a difficult conversation.
Photo by Dinner Series. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
The ability to be aware of--and influence--what we're thinking about is a critical self-coaching skill. We need to focus our attention on what's important and devote less of it to what's irrelevant, a task that's more difficult when we're stressed or distracted. And yet efforts to actively suppress thoughts can actually be counterproductive--so what CAN we do?
Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner is known for his work on mental control, among other topics, and in response to the question, "How do people control their own minds?" he writes:
The simple strategy of directing attention can often be helpful, as people can stop thoughts, concentrate, improve their moods, relax, fall asleep, and otherwise control their mental states just by trying to direct their thoughts. These strategies of mental control can sometimes backfire, however, producing not only the failure of control but the very mental states we are trying to avoid. [Emphasis mine]
Wegner's insights on mental control emerged from his research on thought suppression, a concept he illustrates with the image of a white bear, inspired by a line from Dostoyevsky: "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute." Wegner writes:
People who are prompted to try not to think about a white bear while they are thinking out loud will tend to mention it about once a minute... It seems that many of us are drawn into what seems a simple task, to stop a thought, when we want to stop thinking of something because it is frightening, disgusting, odd, inconvenient, or just annoying. And when we succumb to that initial impulse to stop, the snowballing begins. We try and fail, and try again, and find that the thought is ever more insistent for all our trying.
Why does this matter so much? Neuroscientist and psychologist Ian Robertson offers one very practical reason in his book Mind Sculpture:
We have to inhibit the billions of bits of irrelevant information assailing our senses in order to concentrate on the fragments of information which are crucial for us at a particular point in time.
This difficulty in suppressing the irrelevant causes particular problems with driving in older people. Whereas older people are more vigilant, careful and generally less error prone, they tend to make more mistakes at busy road junctions. At such complicated traffic intersections, everyone--young and old--is faced with a barrage of lights, signals and speeding streams of traffic. Some of this information is critically important for deciding when and what to do next, while much of it is irrelevant. For instance, the roaring trucks on the motorway overhead may be noisy and intimidating, but they...are quite irrelevant to the taks of managing to turn here. A young driver will be much better able to "screen out" this irrelevant distraction than an older driver, and so will be better able to focus attention on the lights and traffic which are important for surviving this particular turn. [pp 114-15]
My goal here isn't to promote safer driving among the aged (although as a 45-year-old who logs more than 300 miles most weeks, perhaps it should be). These issues have relevance in a much broader context: All of us, young and old, drivers and pedestrians, face the interpersonal equivalent of a busy intersection at work almost every day.
We're in a fast-paced meeting, for example, with a full agenda, allies and adversaries around the table, and massive amounts of information (both literal data and emotional signals) flying around the room. How do we focus our attention in order to achieve our goals most effectively?
As Robertson notes, inhibition is crucial here--wasting attention on the equivalent of a noisy but irrelevant truck roaring overhead could result in an ill-timed turn. However, as Wegner notes, we can't simply compel ourselves to ignore such distractions, or we actually risk becoming fixated on them. And if we're stressed, or tired (or just getting older), it'll be even more difficult to focus our attention where it's needed most.
So what do we do? In October 2011 health journalist Lea Winerman covered a presentation by Wegner at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, in which he described several effective strategies for mental control.
In-the-moment, Wegner recommends that we 1) minimize multi-tasking, which diminishes our cognitive load, frees up finite working memory and increases our ability to focus, or 2) identify an "absorbing distractor" that will prevent us from becoming fixated on a more problematic focal point.
Over time, Wegner recommends that we build our capacity to resist distraction in the following ways: 1) commit to address unwanted thoughts at some designated time--as Winerman notes, chronic worriers who set aside 30 minutes a day during which they were free to worry experienced less anxiety during the rest of their day, or 2) practice meditation and mindfulness techniques.
A personal note on that last strategy: Although I've found meditation difficult at times, I persist in the practice because my own experience is consistent with Wegner's recommendation. For me meditation isn't a means to some sort of blissed-out, stress-free state--it's a workout, and a very hard one some days. My (utterly simple) practice is inspired by Jon Kabat-Zinn: Get still, notice what I'm thinking about (and how it makes me feel), let go of that thought (and those emotions) and bring my attention back to what it feels like to breathe. Within seconds, I'm thinking about something else again, and the cycle repeats itself over and over for 15 minutes. Not easy, and not particularly fun--as I said, it's a workout--but I'm exercising my capacity for self-awareness and my ability to direct attention, and after nearly two years of ongoing practice I do feel more able to focus on what matters and minimize distractions--fairly important tasks if I want to finish a book on this stuff.
Thanks to Oliver Burkeman's The Antidote for (among other things) introducing me to Daniel Wegner's work on mental control.
Photo by David Wall. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
Exciting news! I've signed a contract with Harvard Business Review Press to write a book on self-coaching. I worked with Editorial Director Tim Sullivan last year to transform my rough framework into a more comprehensive proposal, and ultimately he and his colleagues gave the idea a thumbs-up. (I'm grateful to Tim for his ongoing support and to Grant McCracken for introducing us in the first place.)
I wrote at length about what I mean by "self-coaching" last June, but in brief it's a self-directed process that allows us to be more effective and feel more fulfilled in our professional lives by drawing upon tools and concepts from executive coaching, social psychology, neuroscience, and other disciplines. Self-coaching is not intended to replicate the experience of working in-person with a coach, but self-coaching resources can be of use to people currently working with a coach, people who have worked with a coach in the past, and the much larger number of people who may never have the opportunity to work directly with a coach.
One further note: Self-coaching doesn't mean solitary coaching. As I wrote in another post last June, "While self-coaching is an effort we initiate as individuals, it's not a solitary experience that occurs in isolation from our social relationships. Self-coaching involves not only working with ourselves (as both coach and client), but also transforming key people in our lives into members of our self-coaching team, even if only for a single interaction. By compelling us to make aspects of our inner dialogue public and to engage others as we engage ourselves, self-coaching can be an intensely social experience."
My manuscript for Harvard is due September 2014--which seems both a long ways off and just around the corner--but I'll continue to explore these ideas here rather than take the process offline. After 8 years (!) of blogging I've found that writing in public is the best way to hold myself accountable and actually get the work done, with the added benefit of inviting others into a dialogue that results in better work than I would have accomplished on my own.
I took a longer-than-usual break from writing this fall because of a particularly busy calendar, and I expect to return to a more regular writing schedule this year. In the meantime, you can see the overall framework and links to key posts on my Self-Coaching page, but note that it's very much a work-in-progress. (For example, my initial perspective on goal-setting has continued to evolve over the last few months.) Or just follow me on Twitter, where I announce new posts and occasionally share pictures of baked goods.
Almost all of us have to grapple with important professional relationships in which 1) the lines of authority are complex and tangled, 2) the emotional signals and other interpersonal cues are hard to decipher, and 3) there's an interdependence between the two parties that can generate both excitement and resentment, depending on the circumstances.
One process that I've found useful in helping my coaching clients decide how best to manage these difficult relationships is clarifying how they might both connect with the other person and, in contrast, control the other person. I'm not suggesting that it's a 50/50 alternative: In my experience as a coach and certainly in the annals of management literature (cf. Daniel Goleman's Leadership that Gets Results, just as one starting point) connecting with other people is a far more productive and sustainable approach. That said, the ability to control others effectively is a critical managerial and interpersonal skill, particularly in a crisis.
I'm also not suggesting that we face a binary choice: We typically need to make use of both approaches in any given relationship to meet our goals (and a failure to meet those goals may suggest that we're relying on one approach at the expense of the other.)
There's a temporal dimension to these choices as well. Sometimes we're faced with an opportunity to act in-the-moment, and we need to be prepared to quickly employ a range of tactics suited to the situation. And no matter what the present situation, we should also take the long view, considering what strategies to apply over time during the course of the relationship.
The 2x2 grid above is an admittedly oversimplified depiction of this interpersonal landscape ("A map is not the territory it represents"), but I find it a helpful way to convey these concepts quickly. The examples in each category above aren't intended to be definitive or exhaustive; they're simply ones that come up frequently in my discussions with clients and students.
So when considering how to improve a difficult relationship, we might start by asking ourselves...
- What steps could I take to connect with this person?
- What could I do in-the-moment in a given interaction that might develop or strengthen the connection between us?
- What long term strategies might I apply over time that would create further opportunities for connection?
But it's also important to ask ourselves...
- If need be, what steps could I take to control this person?
- If need be, what could I do in-the-moment in a given interaction that might tilt the balance of power between us?
- If need be, what long terms strategies might I apply over time that would create further opportunities to do so?
I want to re-iterate that this isn't a 50/50 alternative--in most relationships, most of the time, we'll be most effective at achieving our interpersonal goals through connection. But it's magical thinking to believe that all difficulties can be resolved that way, and we put ourselves at a serious disadvantage if we can't exert control when necessary. It's also magical thinking to believe that control will yield sustainable success--with the requisite power, authority, oversight and time, we can extract compliance from anyone, but it'll last only as long as our stores of those precious resources.
So it may also be worth asking...
- Which approach feels more comfortable or natural to me? How do I feel about the alternative approach?
- Do I feel capable of switching between approaches as needed, or do I overuse one or the other?
- If I tend to rely on connecting strategies and avoid controlling ones, am I failing to step into my authority, make use of my power and assert control when needed?
- If I tend to rely on controlling strategies, am I failing to acknowledge my vulnerability, build trust and connect with others when needed?
Our ultimate goal should be not only the ability to draw upon both approaches, but also the ability to do so dynamically, so that we're not stuck in one mode or the other in a given interaction (or in the relationship as a whole) but can shift as needed, adjusting to changing circumstances.