What would happen if every day you went into work you thought of yourself as a fraud? You constantly had to search the faces of others to see if you’ve been “found out”? To see if they now know what you have believed about yourself for so long - that you are “punching above your weight class”, that you are in over your head, that you do not belong. How would it feel to spend entire days, jobs or a career not really knowing that you are good enough and integral to the work that needs doing? What does it do to your body, heart and mind when you carry so much stress and tension not just because of your workload, but from the burden of having no assurance from others at work because you have no self-assurance? What if this lack of awareness about your true value means you don’t speak up in meetings as often as you would like or that you screen yourself out of promotional opportunities and interesting projects? What if this mistrust in yourself cuts you off from your greatest gifts and your full potential?
Then it would be true…you are not good enough. Not because this is a certainty or even a fact, but because your perception is your reality. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Yet, it does not need to be like this.
We’ve all had days like this…and jobs like this. Sometimes there is awareness of how we get in our own way and we have access to wisdom that lets us find a balance in how we view ourselves. Sometimes this is the price of admittance into work we love – the terrifying “stretch” we need to propel us further on our way (a trial by fire), allowing us to see what we are really made of (and feel good about it – in the end). Sometimes it is a trap that feeds a cycle of low self-esteem, holding us in place like a terrified rabbit. There is a “way out” of this cycle (whether you have been in it for days, weeks or years), but it requires you to do something you may not have considered before. Something you may not traditionally make time and space for at work. It requires you to be compassionate, with yourself. As you are sitting at work (maybe reading this blog) check in; how are you holding yourself right now? Are your muscles tense, poised to “act”, is your jaw set or relaxed? Is your neck strained, bent forward or is it gracefully holding your head up straight? How are your shoulders? Set…loose and upright or rounded forward and taut? How compassionate do you feel towards yourself in this very moment?
Those tight muscles mean that you are grinding your way through something, not giving yourself the compassion and breathing space you need - not indicating to others that you are worthy of their consideration because you are not considerate of yourself. How often do you acknowledge to yourself the contributions you are making? When we cannot do this for ourselves it is even less likely others will do it for us. Breathe. Stretch. Give yourself a moment of self-compassion and let your body relax for a full five minutes or more. It is this act, and the commitment to doing this for yourself several times throughout your day, that will bring more compassion into our workplaces. It starts with you. If you can’t give yourself a break then it is no surprise when others don’t consistently offer you one either; or maybe they do and you just can’t see it because you are being so hard on yourself or are so busy making everything work. Without this small break you are less able to acknowledge your good work, helping others to see it too (and in turn being better able to see the contributions of others…to acknowledge them).
In her book Unshakable Confidence, author and Psychotherapist Mare Chapman gives us this guidance for being aware and self-compassionate by giving ourselves permission to take mindful moments. Moments to breathe, stretch and relax tense muscles…accessing our self-compassion by asking ourselves these three questions (from page 106):
What beautiful gifts of compassion does this brief exercise hold for you?
If those gifts are not enough, consider this timely quote from Anne Lamott:
"Oh my God, what if you wake up some day, and you’re 65, or 75, and you never got your memoir or novel written; or you didn’t go swimming in warm pools and oceans all those years because your thighs were jiggly and you had a nice big comfortable tummy; or you were just so strung out on perfectionism and people-pleasing that you forgot to have a big juicy creative life, of imagination and radical silliness and staring off into space like when you were a kid? It’s going to break your heart. Don’t let this happen."
When we choose to be more self-compassionate we give ourselves permission to go to the most amazing places in life.
“We’ll have to agree to disagree” is a phrase that sometimes comes up in interpersonal communication, referencing opposing opinions and beliefs about sport teams and favourite TV shows alike, which is all right in our social life. But what can you do with this statement when it pops up in important conversations at work? That is much more difficult as it points to a very big problem – the person who choses to wield that statement is stepping back from the conversation and not participating in building a path forward together.
I know, as I have used this phrase myself when I did not feel in a position to navigate the issue right in that moment. Using this phrase to buy yourself more time, ensuring you are ready to participate in a robust discussion about differing points of view is healthy as long as you commit to going back to resolving the concern before it becomes a point of conflict. Leaving things in a perpetually oppositional state doesn’t work well for anyone; it undermines professional working relationships (sometimes at a critical point), creating issues around trust and influence. It isolates both parties, creating an impasse with no obvious way forward. Anyone in leadership who exits a discussion with “we’ll have to agree to disagree” is not leading or influencing others; in order to lead you need to stay in the muck of emotions, values and beliefs that have put you at odds with your professional colleague. Turn away from that, and what are you doing? Creating isolation.
Staying on the moral high ground is often the lofty goal of “agreeing to disagree”, and it offers the justification (often seen as sanctuary) to halt participation in a difficult conversation. However, it doesn’t build understanding, trust, collaboration or a way forward (and there is nothing moral about dropping out of an important conversation and not going back to it). When you choose to put yourself outside of the problem (which is what agreeing to disagree does), things still carry on without you, only now you are no longer in a position to influence or navigate what comes next. As leaders we do not have the luxury of “agreeing to disagree”, it is our job to curiously and compassionately see things from as many perspectives as possible, to fully understand the context, operating realities and nuance of what is in play. If I trust my colleague then why wouldn’t I want to know why their position on an issue is so firm? What do they know that I do not? What do they see that I don’t? What am I missing? This takes genuine curiosity.
And trust. The conditions that lead to agreeing to disagree often involve a lack of trust (either in ourselves or in the other person). If someone is handing you that statement as a way out of a conversation (or argument) then take a step back and consider where the trust issue may lie. Why is isolation preferable to continuing the dialog? If you are using that phrase, stop and think about what specifically you are having difficulty trusting; is it yourself or the other person? Trust is the reason why as leaders we cannot resort to leaving disagreements on important items unanswered, and while it is not particularly comfortable, clearing the air to reach a position of full understanding is necessary to continue the working relationship in a healthy way – and it can be done without anyone having to compromise their principles. The way forward is deeper mutual understanding and acknowledgement based on that mutual understanding. So how do we build that with someone who clearly doesn’t want to continue the conversation (and it is on an issue that is key to working together or moving things forward constructively)?
Allowing some time and breathing space is something to consider, but exit the conversation with transparency, letting the other party know that while you respect they are not in a place where they want to discuss this further, you would like to come back to this issue in the next few days and continue the dialog. If the conversation (now argument) has become heated when this phrase is thrown out, breathing room is exactly what is being called for, and you may have to answer for more then just a disagreement if you exchanged harsh words. Commit to what is needed to begin repairing the relationship, repairing trust. Isolation is never the answer.
In their book Crucial Conversations: Tools For Talking When Stakes Are High, Kerry Patterson, Joseph Grenny, Ron McMillan and Al Switzler have identified a path forward, and it begins with you (no matter if you are the person asking to agree to disagree or the one being handed that statement). By answering these four questions in an open and honest way (from page 43 in the second edition of their book) you can find a starting place to re-build trust:
If you are answering these questions with the intent to build mutual understanding, then the phrase “agreeing to disagree” is not likely to re-emerge when you follow-up with your colleague. Even with the prompts above this is not easy work (note that the book is worth reading in its entirety for even more depth and options on how to navigate crucial conversations). Navigating difficult conversations takes commitment, curiosity, compassion and self-awareness. As leaders, doing this consistently is what we are truly being asked to do on a daily basis for the health and welfare of our people and organizations.
Traversing The Unknowns of Leadership
Working With The Emotions of Others
The Trap of “Not My Problem” Thinking
We’ve all been there. Working at a great (maybe even your dream) job, and yet something is deeply wrong. You feel like a stranger on your own team. You think your manager is missing the big picture, or misreading the details (or misunderstanding you). You are concerned about the values your organization says it upholds, and how people are actually acting (towards each other, the clients, or both). Yet, you really love the work (or another aspect of what is there for you). At this point most people are wondering what their options are and start nervously thinking about freshening up their resume, but what if there was another way to work within this circumstance?
If you experience disrespect, bullying, or other behaviour that is profoundly unwelcome or unethical I am not suggesting that you should stay. However, for many people thinking about leaving their current employer there are feelings of disappointment that “come and go”; one day is positive and shows promise and the next may be a disheartening example of worst fears – there is no consistency. Often this is experienced after the “honeymoon” period in a new role, or a re-organization, merger or other major shake-up at your place of work. Perhaps the “disruption” was an assessment or a performance review that was honest enough to make you feel vulnerable, even a bit “naked” at work, or you are just not being seen/heard by your manager and others. Things are just not what you had hoped they would be (or what they have been in the past). Now what? It’s a perfectly human response to want to move yourself out of discomfort (and out of your job/organization), and perhaps in the end that is really what is being called for, but before making any lasting decisions about your current role, take a look at some of the things that contribute most to disruption at work and what you can do about them.
Organizations often venture into cost cutting measures and reorganizations when there is a wider economic impact to their product/service or sector. Keeping yourself aware of what is happening in your profession and industry will allow you to develop and position your skills to be of highest value (with your current employer or a new one). You don’t have to read the Wall Street Journal or Financial Times each day to stay aware, but you will need to make some time to scan headlines and read items of interest in professional journals, blogs, periodicals or any industry-specific websites that help you better understand the bigger picture. This doesn’t mean a large time commitment, prudent use of news feeds and Internet will do the trick. Don’t enjoy reading? Network with people who do. For the price of a cup of coffee (or just making a point to connect with others socially) you can keep yourself aware of what is happening. Are the credentialing requirements changing in your profession? What is the economic health of your industry or sector? How exposed is your organization to political happenstance or currency fluctuations? These are things you need to be aware of if you want to ride the wave of discontent at work because it may have nothing to do with you or your company, it could be the market. Knowing that can help you make better decisions about your next move - stay and be a part of the solution, or go and find a more stable environment to work in.
Workplace culture is sometimes another point of dissent. What an organization says it aspires to be for its employees (or even it’s customers) may not be as present day-to-day as you expected. Be objective, and know that many organizations are reaching to increase job satisfaction and employee/customer engagement, but they aren’t necessarily where they want to be - yet. Additionally, the way employees experience their organization varies greatly from location to location (or department to department). If the organization is growing Sales but not R&D, there will be a difference in “climate” within those two departments. You will need to determine if the workplace culture you currently have is there long-term or a reflection of a recent shift in funding, leadership or focus (for better or worse). You always have the option to work towards making it better, finding willing hands and internal partners in your organization to do this. Do you feel comfortable having these conversations? Can you be a part of the solution? Can you manage your blossoming negativity? Is this something you are interested in becoming a part of for your team? Being a lonely champion of one can be heartbreaking, so look for opportunities to build shared understanding to objectively see what possibilities exist in your place of work. Workplace culture is a marathon, not a sprint, so be mindful of how resilient you are in the face of a process that will have many ups and downs and often no immediate results (but can be highly rewarding).
The leadership style exercised by your manager, or at the organization in general, may also be an intersection of discomfort. Whether you like to work in an environment that demonstrates you are trusted to run with things or you prefer to have each step articulated for you by your boss, being aware of your needs and how they are or are not being met by your current manager is key. Maybe you are not the right fit for each other, but a contributing factor may be that neither you nor your manager have committed to sitting down together and having a series of honest and compassionate conversations that can better steer your interactions and ultimately your working relationship. Have you spoken to your manager about your concerns (and not just in passing or by hinting, have you asked for his/her undivided attention to discuss this)? Do you have an objective understanding of how she/he likes to lead? What is important to him/her (and to your organization)? What support do you need from your manager? Communication is key in this relationship, and (for anyone who is ready to “pull the plug” and move on), if you aren’t comfortable having these conversations here, you aren’t likely to have these conversations elsewhere. It’s a partnership, and like any partnership you get out of it what you put into it; what part are you playing in making this important relationship work? Keep in mind you don’t have to like your manager, but you do need to get to a place of mutual respect and understanding, or this is painful (and if you can get to mutual respect here, that is a skill you can take with you everywhere).
All three of these areas, industry health, workplace culture and leadership style act as “tectonic plates” in any working environment. How well they “fit” with your needs, gifts and aspirations is something only you can determine. We all know the feeling we get when these things are working really well for us and when they are rubbing in the wrong ways; when that happens you may feel powerless to do anything about it. Except this is your life and your career, so before deciding to leave, see what can be done. Should you stay or should you go? That is something only you can determine. However if you have one foot “out the door” anyway, what harm is there in first figuring out what is possible? In other words, what have you got to lose?
Often in my work I am asked about the role of mentors. Mentorship holds a lot of value and I would never call out a well-thought out mentoring program when the time, effort and resources have been put into place to make that happen. However, what many tend to forget is that sourcing what we need for our own development is always in our hands, whether your organization provides a formal mentoring/development program or not.
The ideals of mentorship make it popular, it offers the possibility of receiving guidance beyond the “business”, providing support in the relational field; navigating office politics, internal networking and helping to increase an individual’s visibility within an organization. That is a tall order for one relationship to deliver on, and before entering into it you should check your assumptions at the door. Mentors act as impartial, impassioned observers. They are not going to be able to help you with something in yourself you cannot yet see, for that a more focused path of development designed around building self-awareness would be beneficial. Checking a box to say you have a mentor won’t make it a fulfilling relationship unless you take accountability for making it meaningful (even when you and your mentor don’t seem to have that perfect “fit” together – relationships of every kind take effort to work). Mentoring isn’t a “magic bullet”, the mentoring relationships you witness others being thankful for (in speeches and in books) are built around individuals who are firmly grounded in owning their development, being self-aware of what growth they needed, learning how others perceived them, and how they may have been standing in their own way. These individuals also thank a lot of people; a mentor is but one of many.
In other words, it takes a village. Development with the assistance of others happens organically every day. Seek a mentor, by why stop at only one? Find people to connect with who hold experiences beyond your own, who have navigated problems and paths you have yet to cross. Meet with them once or often, it doesn’t matter as long as you are open-minded. These individuals will look different then you do, have experienced life in a different way than you, they may even be younger then you are. They will express themselves in ways that may make you laugh, shudder, or make you feel like a slacker. Don’t be complacent choosing to learn from only those who offer comfort and familiarity to you – that is not development - that is confirmation (there is no development in confirmation, although it may seem like it because you feel better when it is present). Mentorship with one individual has a continuity attached to it that allows for a deeper and more intimate professional relationship to take place, but it is not the only professional relationship you need to invest in. Challenge yourself, and in so doing, challenge others. Offer up your gifts, your insights and your experiences. They are valuable, especially when they differ from another persons and you are willing to share them without prejudice, with heart-felt compassion…and from a place where you build shared understanding.
Development is working with someone who will challenge your thinking. If you are lucky you may receive mentorship from someone who can do that, but one person alone cannot be solely responsible for your development (beyond accepting responsibility for this yourself). Unless you are willing to own your own development, it won’t progress in any meaningful way. Development requires you to put yourself out into the world, being prepared to hear things you’d rather not, receive opinions as well as facts. With development you source your own gurus and teachers, build your own network to call on when you need a different perspective. Through all of these conversations you will need to figure out what is important to action, and what is not. This is development through others and through self.
I have the privilege of working with leaders on a daily basis; each are brilliant in their own right, applying their unique gifts to the things that matter both to them and to others. To be a leader you must truly want the position, not for the perks or the assumed compensation, but because you have a deep desire to be a producer on one of the world’s most chaotic stages, that place where ego and outcome manifest within a context of disorder. More simply put, those who truly aspire to leadership are comfortable working within the unknown.
We ask our leaders to navigate the unknown every day, but often not from a place of curiosity and exploration. Most often modern business assumes a mantel of purpose built context holding in place a lens of proficiency…of agency. This sometimes creates a very thin veil, one we have seen collapse again and again in the media as organizations become bankrupt, involve themselves in scandal, or are so caught up in their own importance they forget why they are there in the first place. Rather than being a call to consciousness, this lens of agency often gives the impression that there is little room for error and often no place for failure in today’s business (profit) model. It is a difficult place to navigate from and within; it can make the unknown a place fraught with danger rather than a place of opportunity with only your conscience as a guide.
Leaders formulate the conduit through which passes the unknown, turning it into the known so it can be acted upon. This act of courage, taking something that is unknown and then making it knowable, is practiced by many; academics, artists, writers, innovators, etc. are all responsible for taking nothing, an idea, and building it into something that was not present before. Leaders do this not in a vacuum or by themselves, but with the assistance of many hands, each providing a piece of the “puzzle” until the picture is complete. As a leader you may not consider yourself particularly creative or “artsy”, but problem solving requires a measure of creativity…and a mind capable of being focused and productive within the unknown. Add to this the beautiful randomness of humans (whom you lead into, and then rely upon to figure a way out of, the unknown) and you have an incredibly challenging role, one that requires conscious leaders to be unselfish in their understanding of both what is happening and what is needed, making quick decisions that have the possibility of impacting others (staff, clients or the organization as a whole). This calls on leaders to have the ability to be in the unknown, and to be there unselfishly, ensuring the needs of others come before your own (or else risk the outcome of the journey).
So how do you ensure your leadership has this unselfish quality, this ability to work in the unknown with calm purpose holding the needs of others in your hands? Truly remarkable leaders have something in common…they listen. This act of listening is undertaken with intent to understand (as opposed to the intent to respond). See if you can feel the difference by using Eric Fromm’s six guidelines for mastering the art of unselfish understanding (from his posthumously publish book The Art of Listening):
How well do you listen? How well you listen impacts how effectively you traverse the unknown.
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ABOUT MY BLOG
I believe in giving back to others in many tangible ways. When I learn something new, or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website. You can always find my latest blog entries here, on Face Book or Linked In.