As adults we face a version of the marshmallow test nearly every waking minute of every day. We’re not tempted by sugary treats, but by our browser tabs, phones, tablets, and (soon) our watches—all the devices that connect us to the global delivery system for those blips of information that do to us what marshmallows do to preschoolers... Read the rest at HBR.
Over the past year I've been doing a series of video-conferences with a distributed management team on topics related to communication, feedback, leadership, and coaching, and last week we wrapped up with a session on self-coaching and organizational culture.
The condensed deck above is from our final session, with the exercises and other material removed, leaving only the slides related to the concepts I discussed.
It was a fantastic experience, and I feel grateful for the opportunity to work with this team. Many thanks to everyone who was involved.
...comes from the wonderfully cantankerous early 20th century actor W.C. Fields:
I don't have to attend every argument I'm invited to.
We're so quick to assume that if someone has an issue or a dispute or wants to pick a fight with us for some reason that we're obligated to reciprocate. "We've been invited to an argument," we say to ourselves, "and it would be rude to decline."
We would do well to reconsider that logic.
I'm not suggesting that we should be callous--just the opposite. When someone's upset with us, we should always respond with empathy and curiosity, at least initially. But that stance doesn't obligate us to take any subsequent action whatsoever. Meeting an argument with empathy and curiosity actually makes it easier to decline to attend, should we conclude that we have better things to do.
Sometimes declining to attend an argument means that we disengage and move on. Sometimes it takes the form of a joke that puts a leak in the balloon of the other party's outrage. Another option, though, is simply stepping aside.
We don't have to bear the brunt of someone's anger or frustration, should we conclude that it's unwarranted, and that doesn't mean we have to stop interacting with them. We can step aside, let the freight train pass, and then continue the conversation
We don't have to respond to a hostile question or one asked in bad faith, and that doesn't mean we have to end the dialogue. We can step aside and answer a different, better question--the one that should have been asked but wasn't.
Of course, this is easy to discuss at a remove and hard to do when facing someone who very much wants us to accept their invitation to argue. The key, as always, is emotion management: Reframe the situation, acknowledge and attune to our emotions, and build our capacity for mindfulness (topics discussed further here, here and here.)
The communication funnel is a concept I regularly discuss with coaching clients, most of whom are senior leaders in constant contact with their direct reports and/or managing virtual teams.
We prioritize immediacy and convenience in our communication, so we start with the fastest and easiest channels at our disposal--text, chat or email. But these channels lack bandwidth, so they're poorly-suited to conveying nuance and complexity.
The obvious solution when a dialogue stalls at one level is to step up to a higher level. Stop texting and send an email. Stop emailing and talk by phone or video. Get off the phone and wait to talk until we're face-to-face.
On occasion this isn't feasible--there's truly an urgent need to complete the dialogue now. But much more often this perceived need is an illusion. Our ability to assess the situation clearly is clouded by anxiety, fear and excitement--emotions that are compounded by organizational cultures that lead us to expect immediate responses. We become emotionally triggered and lose perspective.
(And, of course, this illusory desire for immediacy is driven by trillion-dollar industries that stoke, fulfill and profit from our need for speed.)
The key is managing those emotions that keep us stuck in a stalled, unproductive dialogue. How can we do this? Four suggestions:
1. Turn off unnecessary alarms.
The functions on our phones and other devices that beep, blink and thrust red numbers in our faces are designed to capture our attention and create a sense of urgency. They play a critical role in keeping us stuck. But how often are any of these interruptions truly urgent? Almost never. Turn them off to avoid being unnecessarily triggered and to minimize anxiety, fear and excitement.
2. Reframe the situation.
Concepts such as David Rock's SCARF model and Chris Argyris' Ladder of Inference can help us step back and view our immediate experience from a new perspective. This process of reframing is a well-established psychological technique derived from cognitive behavioral therapy, but it's important to apply it early in a potentially stressful situation, before we're triggered and reactive.
3. Acknowledge our emotions.
Emotions play a critical role in decision-making and rational thought, and they can also easily lead us astray in stressful situations. Acknowledging what we're feeling in the moment can help us manage our emotions by regulating their appropriate expression, rather than trying to suppress them, which almost always fails. This starts with expanding our emotional vocabulary, but it also involves developing working relationships and organizational cultures within which we can express what we're feeling.
4. Build our capacity for mindfulness.
Over time we can increase our ability to manage our emotions and focus our attention in a productive direction, and the key is our capacity for mindfulness--non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of our immediate experience. Meditating for just a few minutes a day has been shown to have a powerful impact, and other reflective practices such as journaling and time in nature can play a role as well. Further, regular physical exercise and good sleep hygiene allow us to be more attuned to our emotions and comprehend them more fully without being governed by them.
Photo by Je.T. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
At least once a month an ambitious and hard-working person in their 20s asks me, “Should I get an MBA?” I earned my MBA from Stanford’s Graduate School of Business in 2000, and since 2007 I’ve been an Instructor and an internal coach back at the GSB, helping hundreds of students develop their leadership and interpersonal skills. Here’s how I respond to those inquiries... Read the rest at HBR.
In "Bouncing Back," a profoundly thought-provoking book that draws upon concepts from philosophy, psychology and neuroscience to promote resilience and well being, therapist Linda Graham relates the following story from Buddhist tradition:
A master monk is meditating in a temple with other monks. Suddenly a fierce bandit storms into the temple, threatening to kill everybody. The other monks flee, but the master monk remains, calmly meditating. Enraged, the bandit shouts, "Don't you understand? I could run you through with my sword and not bat an eye!" The monk calmly replies, "Don't you understand? I could be run through by your sword and not bat an eye." [p 229]
I see a connection here with my recent HBR post, which emphasizes the importance of ignoring the unimportant in order to focus our time and attention on those people and issues that truly matter. We often approach this process as an intellectual task of prioritization, but it's a fundamentally emotional experience. The choice to ignore certain people and issues in favor of others stirs up a complex range of emotions--particularly anxiety, fear and guilt--that can be difficult to manage and can easily cause us to make decisions that aren't in our best interests.
Graham's master monk is an exemplar of emotion management who points the way for mere mortals like the rest of us. In the face of a bandit's sword, he values devotion to his meditative practice above all else. He chooses where to focus his time and attention, and even the threat of losing his life isn't sufficient to deter him from the pursuit of his goals. Being distracted by fear and allowing the bandit to determine where he should focus his attention would be the greater loss.
I'm not suggesting that we should be suicidally cavalier when confronted with legitimate threats. But I do believe that we often see sword-wielding bandits where there are none, and when we do, we scatter like so many lesser monks, allowing the perceived threat to determine our course of action.
So what can we do? There's no single step to automatically enhance our capacity for emotion management, but there are many ways we can begin the process, as I noted in my HBR post:
Adjust our mental models to reflect emotions' importance and the role they play in rational thought and decision-making. Our beliefs shape our experience.
Take better care of ourselves physically. Regular exercise and sufficient sleep demonstrably improve our ability to both perceive and regulate emotion.
Engage in some form of mindfulness routine. Meditation, journaling and other reflective practices enhance our ability to direct our thoughts, helping us sense emotion more acutely, and provide a new perspective on our experiences, helping us make sense of those emotions.
Expand our emotional vocabulary—literally. Having a wider range of words to describe what we’re feeling not only helps us communicate better with others, but also helps us to more accurately understand ourselves.
A specific practice that's relevant here, which Graham discusses in her chapter on "Developing Somatic Intelligence," is priming our brains to remain calm in a crisis. As Graham notes, "Priming simply means preparing the brain to feel a certain emotion or a physiological state that could be adaptive in an anticipated situation." She recommends three specific versions of priming: 1) begin each day with some form of loving, physical connection--hug someone, even ourselves; 2) also begin each day by recalling a memory or a hoped-for future experience that evokes a sense of well-being, and 3) train ourselves to recognize when we're agitated and have lost our equanimity, and then take a moment to breathe, feel our heart beating, and calm ourselves before proceeding. (Graham discusses some of the research behind this process, and neuroscientist Richard Davidson's "The Emotional Life of Your Brain," goes much further in explaining the neurological impact of similar mindfulness practices.)
Here are three additional practices aimed specifically at the work of prioritizing and triage:
Triage under optimal conditions: Determining what we should pay attention to (and what we should ignore) is a mentally and emotionally taxing task, and we should undertake it when our reserves of mental and emotional control are at their highest. Too often we tackle this important work when we're already stressed--do it early in the day or after a break instead.
Reflect on the benefits: Our natural negativity bias is enhanced under stress, and when we choose to ignore demands for our time and attention, we fixate on the disadvantages and things that might go wrong. But freeing up our time and attention for truly important people and issues inevitably yields benefits--the return on our investment of those precious resources is greater when we spend them accordingly. Spending a few minutes reflecting on the benefits we expect to realize by dedicating ourselves to our most important tasks can strengthen our resolve.
Challenge our threat response: Our brains and bodies can respond to certain interpersonal experiences just as if we were facing a physical attack, a phenomenon known as social threat. But when we experience any form of threat response--also known as a "fight, flight or freeze response"--our cognitive abilities are substantially diminished. It's important to recognize the telltale signs of our own threat response, which can range from a racing heart and sweaty palms to feelings of aggression or defensiveness, and to arrest the process as early as possible. Sometimes what looks like a sword-wielding bandit is just a shadow or a wisp of smoke.
Video still from Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai courtesy of The Criterion Collection.
Last week I conducted a workshop in San Francisco on Team Effectiveness with a group of senior managers at a technology company. They were able to acknowledge right from the start that their communication as a team could be improved, and in my experience that's always a positive (and important) sign.
The condensed deck above includes the slides covering the various concepts we discussed, but the slides related to the exercises we conducted have been removed. Thanks to everyone who participated--I felt privileged to be there.
My latest post at HBR: The Most Productive People Know Who to Ignore
A coaching client of mine is managing partner at a very large law firm, and one of the issues we’ve been working on is how to cope more effectively with the intense demands on his time—clients who expect him to be available, firm partners and other employees who want him to address their concerns and resolve disputes, an inbox overflowing with messages from these same (and still other!) people, and an endless to-do list. Compounding this challenge, of course, is the importance of making time for loved one and friends, exercise, and other personal needs.
When faced with potentially overwhelming demands on our time, we’re often advised to “Prioritize!” as if that’s some sort of spell that will magically solve the problem. But what I’ve learned in the process of helping people cope with and manage their workflow is that prioritizing accomplishes relatively little, in part because it’s so easy to do... Read the rest at HBR.
Much of my work as a coach involves helping leaders determine how they can most effectively wield power to best meet the needs of their organizations. And note that by power I mean not only the directive authority invested in their roles, but also the many forms of influence at their disposal. I often refer clients to the articles below, so I've compiled them here for easier access:
McClelland and Burnham on Power and Management: A post of mine on McClelland's theory.
Photo by Jamie Jamieson. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
My latest post at HBR: Make Getting Feedback Less Stressful
Much of my work as an executive coach and an instructor at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business involves helping people improve their abilities to deliver feedback more effectively. It’s a critical skill, particularly for both leaders in flat organizations where giving orders is generally counter-productive and for anyone who needs to manage up or across by influencing their bosses or peers. And it’s a topic on which I’ve written extensively, not only in posts on my site and at HBR.org, but also in the HBR Guide to Coaching Your Employees.
But a recent exchange with my colleague and former Stanford student Anamaria Nino-Murcia made me realize that I’ve been neglecting the other half of this equation: How to receive feedback more effectively... Read the rest at HBR.
Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston's Graduate School of Social Work, and she's dedicated her career to the study of such topics as vulnerability, empathy, courage and shame. Her 2010 TEDxHouston talk on The Power of Vulnerability has over 16 million views as of this writing, and even though I've seen it myself nearly a dozen times I continue to find it inspiring and insightful.
While Brown's message resonates with such a large audience because of the universality of her themes, she talks about vulnerability and empathy in a way that I believe has specific relevance for leaders, which is why I often make use of her work with my coaching clients and MBA students at Stanford. Here's the key passage in Brown's 2010 talk, in which she describes findings from her research on the extent to which different people feel love and belonging in their lives:
[Something that people who have a strong sense of love and belonging] had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn't talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating... They just talked about it being necessary...
The problem is--and I learned this from the research--that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can't say, here's the bad stuff. Here's vulnerability, here's grief, here's shame, here's fear, here's disappointment. I don't want to feel these. I'm going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. (Laughter) I don't want to feel these... You can't numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects, our emotions. You cannot selectively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness. And then we are miserable, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
So to fully experience positive emotions, we have to be open to our negative emotions. We have to resist the urge to numb ourselves and cultivate the ability to be vulnerable without feeling compelled to protect ourselves. We have to develop a sense of comfort with our discomfort.
These concepts are of critical importance to leaders, who must not only manage their own emotions, but who also have a significant impact on the emotions of everyone around them (for better and for worse). Emotions are literally contagious--we sense them in others, pick them up and pass them on--and we're even more sensitive to the emotions of leaders and others we view as having high status.
A leader who can leverage this dynamic effectively has a tremendous competitive advantage. They can acknowledge negative emotions (both their own and others) and manage or make use of them in a way that's healthy and productive, rather than A) seeking to repress or ignore them or B) letting them spiral out of control. And they can also more fully sense and express positive emotions (both their own and others), which can be a powerful source of influence and motivation.
Brown's work on empathy is equally relevant here. Brown defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging," but empathy, she notes, is "the antidote to shame,” and in a discussion in 2007, she explores this relationship further:
If you think about connection on a continuum...anchoring [one] end of of that continuum is empathy. It is what moves us toward deep, meaningful relationship. On the other side of the continuum is shame. It absolutely unravels our relationships and our connections with other people... Empathy is about being vulnerable with people in their vulnerability.
Again, a leader who can harness these dynamics enjoys a powerful advantage. We all experience some form of shame on a regular basis in organizational life, ranging from mild embarrassment to more profound remorse to true feelings of deep shame, and all of these emotions leave us feeling vulnerable. A leader who can meet vulnerability with empathy, who can feel compassion for themselves and for others in the wake of setbacks and mistakes, will be able to build connections and improve their working relationships at the most difficult moments and turn crises into learning experiences.
I'm not suggesting that leaders should fail to hold themselves and others accountable when things go wrong, but our discomfort with shame and the vulnerability it generates often lead us to respond to setbacks in ways that actually undermine accountability--we distance ourselves from failures or hide the evidence or deny that anything's wrong at all. Leaders who truly want to learn from mistakes and hold themselves and others accountable must respond to vulnerability and shame with empathy and compassion.
And yet a fundamental dilemma is that leadership roles constantly generate feelings of vulnerability, but we typically condition leaders to hide their vulnerabilities at all costs. This is why I believe it's so important that Stanford's new MBA curriculum emphasizes leadership development through experiential learning and emotional intelligence, it's why I talk so much about emotions with leaders in my coaching practice, and it's why I try to step more fully into my own vulnerability, even--especially--when I don't want to.
I'm realistic about the difficulty of creating organizations that embrace vulnerability and meet setbacks with empathy. But my experience with hundreds of leaders and Stanford MBAs over the past eight years has convinced me that "the juice is worth the squeeze," as my Dad is fond of saying, so I remain optimistic that these concepts will ultimately shape business culture for the better, and I'm grateful for the opportunity to participate in that work in my practice and at Stanford.
Thanks to Brené Brown for her research, which has had a significant impact on my approach to executive coaching. Here's Brown's 2007 talk on shame and empathy:
And thanks to TED for providing a complete transcript of Brown's 2010 talk on vulnerability.
Last week I volunteered to facilitate the fourth workshop in an ongoing series on Startup Communication aimed at helping co-founders 1) communicate more effectively with each other, 2) establish group norms in the company that support better communication and 3) model better communication with their employees.
Eighteen co-founders from nine ventures participated, and, as always, I was grateful to be involved. It's a privilege to invite people to have more meaningful, intimate conversations with each other and to have them accept the offer, and I ended the day feeling a lot of gratitude for the opportunity to work with these individuals and to do what I do as a coach and experiential educator.
The event was organized by Joe Greenstein, Semira Rahemtulla and Hannah Knapp, and I'm incredibly appreciative of the time and effort they invest to ensure not only that these events happen at all but that they run so smoothly. Thanks to everyone who participated.
A recent conversation with my GSB colleague Collins Dobbs helped clarify my thoughts on how we teach leadership at Stanford and why, and it motivated me to lay out that philosophy more explicitly--to plant a flag, so to speak. I'm not speaking for the school, just for myself, and as an executive coach rather than a an academic researcher I have a distinct (and biased) perspective on management education. But I've been an Instructor and Leadership Coach at the GSB since January 2007, and my work with hundreds of MBAs in that time has both immersed me in the school's approach and convinced me that we're doing something right.
1. Leadership can't be taught, but it can be learned.
In 2007 Charlie Rose interviewed Bill George, the former CEO of Medtronic who's taught at Harvard Business School since 2004:
Charlie Rose: [Leadership] can be taught and learned?
Bill George: Learned. I teach now, and I don't think you can teach leadership, I think you can learn about it. I think you can learn about yourself. It comes from within, from who are you inside and what makes you tick, and what are those tapes playing in your head about what you want to be and what your limitations are.
We don't come right out and say this anywhere at the GSB, but it's fundamentally embedded in our approach. We deliberately don't offer students a "guide to good leadership" or a set of "top tips from great leaders." Several years ago we did provide a "road map" in our Leadership Labs course but decided to scrap it because it threatened to turn into a document like this.
This isn't to say that we don't have a point of view on leadership or that we don't teach specific skills that leaders use. We believe leadership can make a difference (although avoiding bad leaders may be more important than finding great ones.) And we do teach skills such as giving and receiving feedback.
But for the most part we put our students in challenging situations, from role plays to exercises to team projects, and allow them to use these experiences to better understand themselves and their unique leadership abilities, strengths and weaknesses. Our students then decide for themselves why they want to lead, what kind of leader they want to be, how to maximize their current abilities, and what they can do to be more effective.
2. Influence > positional power.
Some of these challenging situations involve students assuming a differentiated authority role, but most don't. In part this is simply a matter of logistics--designating a "leader" means everyone else is a "follower," and with nearly 400 students in each MBA class it takes a lot of time and effort to give everyone a turn.
But this also reflects a belief that everyone in an organization will be called upon to lead at various times, not just the people at the top of the org chart, as well as a recognition that much leadership in today's flatter orgs and more dynamic teams takes the form of leading one's superiors and peers, in addition to direct reports and subordinates.
This isn't to say that we don't expect our students to take on formal leadership positions in which they will wield substantial amounts of positional power--of course we do. But even in those positions many, if not most, of our students will be operating in an environment in which simply giving orders will be counter-cultural, counter-productive and, quite possibly, career-limiting.
As a result we put a great deal of emphasis on the process of influence, which involves critical reasoning as well as the less cognitive, more emotional processes of dealing with one's own feelings about power, building relationships, making people feel heard and understood, advocating a point of view and earning others' trust and commitment.
An aspect of this dynamic is the use of coaching as a form of leadership. The GSB's Leadership Fellows, a select cohort of 68 second-year students who guide groups of first-years through the Leadership Labs course, are trained in coaching tools and techniques in order to ensure that their students feel both well-supported and free to make decisions for themselves without being directed by their Fellow. I work closely with the Fellows and am confident that this intensive program helps them become better leaders, but my hope is that this exposure to coaching as a methodology helps all of our alumni feel better prepared to coach their employees and lead through influence rather than simply relying on positional power.
3. Leadership starts with self-awareness.
So many factors undermine a leader's self-awareness: subordinates' reluctance to provide candid feedback, the disinhibition of power [PDF], even a distorted sense of time. The power and status that accompany leadership create a reality-distortion field that make it tempting for even the most self-effacing leader to believe that they really are as brilliant and gifted as everyone around them seems to think.
Given these dynamics, our leadership development courses at the GSB put a premium on developing a sense of self-awareness. This comes through regular doses of candid interpersonal feedback, as well as a commitment to the practice of regular reflection. The feedback starts in our Leadership Labs course and continues in numerous other classes and programs, most notably Interpersonal Dynamics, aka Touchy Feely. Initially much of this feedback takes the form of well-intentioned but ineffective advice. Some of that advice sticks, much of it doesn't, but over time students learn through trial and error how to give feedback more likely to positively affect others' behavior. And even the poorly-delivered feedback provides a mirror in which students can see themselves through the eyes of their classmates, an experience that inevitably contains both welcome and unwelcome surprises.
The practice of reflection is cultivated primarily by compelling students to write extensively about their lived experience. Almost all of the written work in the courses in which I'm involved takes the form of a "reflection journal" of some sort, in which students step back from their daily lives, surface and articulate their thoughts and feelings, sift through the feedback they've received, apply various concepts and frameworks from lectures and readings, and integrate these components into a personal set of generalizable principles.
I'm not suggesting that all students avail themselves fully of this opportunity to reflect--many do not, and I've read plenty of mediocre papers over the last eight years. But in my experience most students take this work seriously enough to get some value out of it--no surprise, in light of the research on journaling.
I don't expect people to be as actively engaged in these processes after leaving business school and returning to the real world. But I know a number of alumni who've continued to journal in one form or another and who have regular (and very real) feedback conversations with classmates and colleagues. And in my ongoing discussions with alumni and in my private coaching practice with senior leaders, it's readily apparent that the ability to step outside ourselves--to assess, appreciate and eventually understand ourselves more fully--is a critical leadership capability.
While we're doing good work at the GSB, we can always do more. My personal area of focus at the moment has grown out of my work with senior leaders, which has convinced me of the importance of what we might call self-coaching. I use this broad term to encompass such topics as managing our emotions and finding healthy ways to relieve stress; directing our focused attention most productively; motivating ourselves; caring for ourselves physically, emotionally and mentally; and ultimately, feeling compassion toward ourselves and accepting ourselves, even as we're striving to improve.
I don't know anyone who's mastered all these skills, but the most effective leaders I've worked with recognize their importance and devote meaningful amounts of effort and energy to getting better at them. And while I certainly don't have the answers, I'll have an opportunity to teach a new course next year called The Art of Self-Coaching, in which I hope to ask some useful questions.
Many thanks to my GSB colleagues Andrea Corney, Carole Robin, Collins Dobbs, Gary Dexter, Hugh Keelan, John Cronkite, Lara Tiedens, Paul Mattish, Richard Francisco, Ricki Frankel, Scott Bristol, Shannon Birk Jibaja and Yifat Sharabi-Levine, who put in countless hours throughout the year making everything I describe above possible.
Photo by David. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
On Friday I facilitated a workshop on Startup Communication aimed at helping an early-stage company's employees work together more effectively.
I feel privileged to work with all my clients, but in this case it's fair to say that it was particularly rewarding to work with a company whose mission I hold in such high regard.
Thank you to the 22 people who made it such a special afternoon, and particular thanks to the team at Flixster for making us feel so welcome.
My latest post at HBR: The Art of Saying a Professional Goodbye
Saying "goodbye" is one of those activities that seems so simple it hardly requires advance thought--and so endings creep up on us and catch us unprepared. We tend to default to our habitual responses whether or not they’ve been effective in the past. As a result we often miss opportunities to enjoy truly meaningful endings--instead they’re rushed and poorly planned--or we skip over them entirely, casting the old aside as we race toward the new... Read the rest at HBR.
Photo courtesy of HBR Blog Network.
Today I volunteered to facilitate the third workshop in an ongoing series on Startup Communication aimed at helping co-founders 1) communicate more effectively with each other, 2) establish group norms in the company that support better communication and 3) model better communication with their employees.
Twenty co-founders from 10 ventures participated, and I felt privileged and grateful to be involved. It's always a privilege to invite people to have more meaningful, intimate conversations with each other and to have them accept the offer--and I certainly walked away feeling a lot of gratitude for the opportunity to work with this particular group (and simply to do what I do as a coach and experiential educator.)
The event was organized by Joe Greenstein and Hannah Knapp, two people who mean a lot to me, and it was especially fun to see them work together as a team in this setting. Thank you to Joe and Hannah and everyone else who was there.
What happens when we learn new skills that take us out of our comfort zone? When we're striving to be authentic, is it OK when we act with intention and forethought?
The Conscious Competence model, developed by Martin Broadwell in the late 1960s, offers a useful framework to address these questions.
In most areas where we face a challenge, we start out in Unconscious Incompetence (quadrant #1 above): We're screwing up, and we don't even know it. In the context of my work with coaching clients and MBA students, this usually involves difficulties in working relationships and interpersonal situations. We believe our behavior is having the desired effect on others, but it's not--and we don't even realize it.
But these mistakes accumulate, and their consequences heighten our awareness, and we find ourselves in Conscious Incompetence (quadrant #2): We know we're screwing up, and we may even know what we need to do differently, but we haven't yet figured out how to do it. Here's where we need to paddle like hell and catch that wave--and this is where we often fall short. We know we need to adopt some new behaviors to be more effective in these relationships and situations, but our heightened awareness becomes self-consciousness, and we find ourselves paralyzed by awkwardness or by a fear of inauthenticity.
As for the awkwardness, one of the most common themes in my work with coaching clients and MBA students is increasing our comfort with discomfort. We need to expand our capacity to tolerate discomfort to ensure that when we experience it we can manage the resulting emotions and avoid any reflexive responses that might be counterproductive. One of the ways we can pursue this goal is by retraining our response to awkwardness and other forms of discomfort; rather than allowing ourselves to be governed by our aversion to these feelings, we can simply note them, reframe the situation as a learning opportunity, and continue experimenting with new behaviors even in the face of these feelings.
As for the inauthenticity, Scott Bristol, a Lecturer at Stanford with whom I've worked closely over the years, offers this perspective: If we view authenticity as something to be discovered, as an innate state of being that precedes our consciousness, then we experience the feelings of awkwardness that inevitably accompany new behaviors as signs of inauthenticity. But if instead we view authenticity as something to be created, as a state of being that evolves over time through our conscious intervention, then we're free to be both awkward and authentic; the two aren't mutually exclusive.
All of this is easy to write about and very difficult to put into practice--and yet persistent effort can change our relationship to these feelings and to any new behaviors we're attempting that give rise to them. The University of Washington psychologist John Gottman has discussed the concept of meta-emotion--the feelings and thoughts we have about our own emotions (and he notes that parents who have a less negative response to emotion appear to raise children who are better able to manage and express their own emotions.) My experience as a coach suggests that we can influence our meta-emotional state over time; by repeatedly exposing ourselves to emotions such as awkwardness and embarrassment, we feel less negatively about them, and we can change how we respond to them. We become more comfortable with discomfort.
When this happens we're able to cross over into Conscious Competence (quadrant #3) and begin the process of refining any new behaviors and determining which ones we'll integrate into our permanent repertoire. We're acting intentionally with increasingly positive effect, and with continued practice these newly adopted behaviors become second nature, and we slip into Unconscious Competence (quadrant #4).
Our trajectory from this point forward depends on our circumstances. Occasionally our expanded behavioral repertoire is sufficient to allow us to continue on, highly competent and blissfully unaware. We devote little active thought to our interactions in certain relationships and situations, and yet we continue to meet with success. But the dynamic nature of most interpersonal experiences means that we usually wind up back where we started, in quadrant #1, unconsciously incompetent and unaware that our current behavior isn't meeting our goals. And the cycle begins again.
Photo by Tsuyoshi Uda. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
A few weeks ago I conducted a 1-hour webinar for HBR on Coaching Your Employees, and an archived video of my talk is now available. HBR has also produced a well-written 7-page summary of my comments [PDF, 480KB], and you can view my slides separately.
Thanks again to Angelia Herrin for inviting me to participate, to Lisa McMullen for her tremendous help and support, and to all their colleagues at HBR and Citrix/GoToWebinar who made it happen.
Two further notes of appreciation: First, my slides conclude with a section on Resources, linking to the authors I mentioned in my talk; if you're interested in the topics noted below, these works are a great place to start:
- Post-heroic leadership: Power Up by David Bradford and Allan Cohen
- Leadership roles: Scrum Master as Team Coach by Pierluigi Pugliese
- Fixed and growth mindsets: Mindset by Carol Dweck
- A coaching mindset: The Coaching Manager by James Hunt and Joseph Weintraub
- Inquiry and coaching traps: Helping by Edgar Schein
- More on inquiry: Humble Inquiry by Edgar Schein
- The role of emotion: Descartes' Error by Antonio Damasio
- Emotion in organizations: Building the Emotional Intelligence of Groups by Vanessa Druskatt and Steven Wolff
I'd also like to thank Mary Ann Huckabay, Carole Robin, and my colleagues on the Stanford GSB coaching staff, with whom I've worked closely since 2007 in the school's Leadership Fellows program and the former Leadership Coaching course. All of these people have had an immense impact on my approach to coaching, and I'm deeply grateful for their influence.
Fernando Blat recently tweeted a pic of a slide describing how Spotify builds a product (which I've re-posted below.)
The essence of the slide is that Spotify does not build by painstakingly crafting a perfect product that's not functional until it's fully assembled. They iterate in stages, developing a functional but rudimentary product at first and improving it at each step along the way.
In the visual language of the slide, Spotify isn't building a car, starting with a wheel, adding a chassis, then a body, and only then adding a windshield and controls that allow a user to start traveling. Rather, Spotify is providing transport, starting with a ratty skateboard, and then progressing through steps from a scooter to a bicycle to a motorcycle and then, finally, to a car.
The point is that users don't have to wait until the car is perfected to begin their journey--they can jump on that skateboard and get going now. Just as important, Spotify doesn't have to wait until their development process is over to get feedback from users on how they like the car--they can ask them how they like the skateboard now.
I'm not a software developer (although I coach quite a few), and you probably aren't either, but I think this concept is relevant to almost all of us no matter what we do. Whatever our actual goals, let's imagine that we're in the transportation business, like the little figures on the Spotify slide. We can start building the perfect vehicle from the outset--but it's going to take a long time to create value for anyone. Or we can create some type of minimum viable product and share it with the world today. In other words, make more skateboards.
Photo of skateboarders by Michael Coghlan. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
We all have accomplishments we're striving for, milestones we hope to reach, behaviors we want to do more of (or less of)--and setting goals can help motivate us along the way. But research shows that goals have complex (and sometimes counterproductive) effects--while they can help us to get started and persist in our efforts, they can also diminish our sense of fulfillment and leave us demoralized.
One way to manage this challenge is to distinguish between a long-term goal--a large target at which we're aiming over time--and the smaller-scale, day-to-day experience of our pursuit of that goal. Let's call the latter a micro-goal. For example, staying active is an important goal of mine, as it is for many of my coaching clients (most of whom, like me, find it difficult to make time to exercise because we're happy workaholics.) But "Be active" is too large and abstract to serve as an effective goal for me. What does it mean? How do I put it into practice? Further, how does it help me when I'm not active for a certain period of time? It doesn't--and it's actually a demotivator, leaving me feeling guilty and disappointed in myself.
Do I exercise every day? I wish. But not only do I exercise more often because I pursue this micro-goal, because I track my data I'm also able to go back and look at periods in my life when I was more (or less) active and understand what factors were sustaining me (or were getting in my way.) This approach is applicable to any goal that can be broken down into activities we want to pursue (or avoid) on a regular basis. The key is paying just enough attention to the large-scale goal to help us get started and then ignoring it in favor of our micro-goals, the smaller daily events that constitute our lived experience.
This isn't necessarily an easy process. Focused attention is a form of mental control that can be quite difficult, and one reason goals are so powerful (and can have such negative consequences) is their ability to readily capture our attention even when we want to direct it elsewhere. In fact, this difficulty is one reason why I keep trying to meditate: I experience meditation not as a form of relaxation but as a workout in directing my attention. Eventually I meditated almost daily for 18 months, until I blew out a disk in my back, and the pain knocked me out of my exercise and mindfulness routines. A year later I'm finally back to regular exercise, but still trying to return to a regular meditation practice. Baby steps and micro-goals.
More on goal-tracking services: There's an entertaining story behind about Don't Break the Chain. It's a free service, but you can donate (as I have) to avoid seeing any ads. As much as I love DBTC, I have to say that the iOS app is terrible--when I'm using my phone I just visit the site via my browser. There are a number of other services along these lines. I tried Lift (mobile-only) for several months, and while I liked a number of its features, the inability to filter community visibility was problematic (although others may find it an advantage.) I've also just learned about Chains, which seems intriguing.
Thanks to Dorie Clark for the inspiration.
Photo by JD Hancock. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.