At some point in everyone’s career you may have found yourself in an operating environment where your work is cut off from others and you are in a proverbial vacuum. Sometimes it may be because you have a specialty others do not, sometimes it may be because you are embarking on a pilot program or “stealth” project that very few know about. A professional vacuum may also occur because of logistics - you are a remote employee working from home or you are singularly responsible for matters in another time zone that is off-set from the one where you live/go to work and you are not engaged as fully as you would like to be. The potential for isolation is great if we are not mindful, and it may encompass you or your team. Silos are another great example of a vacuum, ever more frustrating because it is happening with the organization all around you/your team. Sometimes we create our own vacuum because we prefer to work alone. Professional vacuums are present when you feel you are responsible for the majority of the decision making, and you are doing it separate from the rest of the organization (or separate from your team).
Vacuums in a professional context share something in common with the scientific definition in that there is no air movement. Both versions are also very quiet and devoid of any remarkable characteristics. In a vacuum you are not being jostled by the needs and opinions of others and you are not being asked to contribute to things peripheral to your work or capabilities. These particular hallmarks of vacuums also make them self-perpetuating; the less involved you are the less you will be called upon to be involved. In some cases this may suit you perfectly, and we can likely think of examples where we willed this to happen (toxic work environments are good examples, where often people indicate they want to be left alone, avoiding involvement in the drama unfolding). Sometimes it occurs by happenstance; this is often highlighted as a concern for sole proprietors and other singular entrepreneurs who by the very nature of their work act independently. Vacuums may feel very constricting, limiting our impact and ability to be productive or meet desired outcomes (they are, by nature, devoid of matter, devoid of having meaning). Vacuums may also become comfortable for us, scientifically referred to as “free space” something you may crave and work hard to protect. It can be a bit of a paradox.
What vacuums do not offer are opportunities to learn, exercise personal growth, test new skills, benchmark behaviours, ideas or approaches in a meaningful way. They do not give you visibility to what is going on around you, nor allow you to fully be seen. And they can sneak up on you. Sometimes we create a vacuum around us by taking on accountabilities we should not because others are busy, we allow them to minimally participate because we feel for their heavy workload and we have our time allocated to work on a project that is important (or we just want to keep moving things forward). However, it can lead to the creation of something that is not relevant to others and is devoid of meaning. Because you and you alone have made decisions (well intentioned decisions) – you are the only one with “skin in the game” and no matter how important the initiative is to the wider organization, no one else will believe in it, support it, or use it to it’s fullest potential.
So how can you assess if you are sucking the air out of your work? The level of involvement of others is a good indicator – relevant to the work you are accountable to accomplish. Yes it feels good to get things moving and to produce, but if others don’t care, or haven’t fully understood the need for their attention and involvement, you are at risk of creating something in a vacuum. If you find yourself in a professional vacuum “break the seal”. Give your work air; give it life by building relevant things through the participation of others and eliciting the involvement your work deserves. In this way you will be exercising your full potential and keeping your skills relevant.
The higher up you go in your career the more isolated you become, this is a fact borne out by the numbers - in the majority of companies there is only one CEO or President. However, recently I’ve been speaking with emerging leaders who identified that loneliness can begin long before you get to the top, creating problematic patterns that become hard to see over time. Let’s take the example of one emerging leader I spoke to; when she decided she wanted to become a people manager she was able to shadow one off-and-on for a few weeks at her place of work. Seeing things more from a manager’s point of view opened her eyes to a different perspective, but once back at her desk her newly enlightened views were not welcomed by her team. “I felt as if I was a pariah for supporting a decision management had made, I quickly learned to keep my new perspective to myself or I would have caused an unrepairable rift between myself and my team.”
Sound familiar? At one point or another many of us have faced this concern as our careers have evolved and our aspirations surpassed those of our colleagues. The pattern this sets is one where you find it is just easier to keep to yourself. Perhaps this is some form of leadership “Darwinism” where emerging leaders learn to keep their own council in preparation for achieving the top spot and having no peers to test ideas with, but that is an archaic approach in todays working environment. So what can you do when your fledgling leadership skills need to be let out, but where that would be damaging to your peer-based working relationships? There are many options. The first is volunteerism. Committees, boards and projects all require leadership skills and there is room to exercise them, to learn and grow in an environment that welcomes initiative. Much like our work forces today many charities are finding that the previously infinite pool of volunteers are aging, reducing the number of available hands to help. Charities and other organizations who rely on volunteers are also aware of the need for diversity in order to be able to meet their organizational goals, so don’t think you are too young (or too old) to contribute leadership skills, volunteerism is a fantastic way to challenge yourself and build capabilities.
Finding a mentor can also be very beneficial, someone to bounce ideas off of, to discuss concerns around the contradictory nature of decisions leaders often have to make to keep enterprises moving forward. A mentor is a great person to examine these tough decisions from different perspectives and to find your own leadership voice, complimenting your values and beliefs. Mentors can help navigate the loneliness aspect as you move beyond what your current role has to offer, but while you still need to work without an identified leadership mandate. Mentors also open up their networks to give you access to others who may be able to help inform your career path. Friends and family outside of work can also offer respite, supporting you in your career. You likely have people in this group who are leaders today and who you may be able to speak candidly with regarding leadership concepts. While having a mentor is great, getting many leadership perspectives is important to see things from different angles and different industries, which is important when building skills.
The pattern you want to avoid is one where your leadership voice becomes isolated, used for communication but not for deep collaboration, or one where you are the “final” word and you make decisions in isolation. It’s sometimes difficult (as the example in the opening paragraph highlights) to be able to share this journey with others and to find supportive voices and relationships that allow you to remain vitally aware of evolving leadership ideas, concepts, perspectives and needs. As your career path continues there are organizations that support leaders at the top (The Executive Committee and Young Presidents Association are but two examples), but these require participants to be at a certain level within their organizations to gain access to these valuable services. Individual coaching is mid-term option to help you press past leadership plateaus and actualize your full potential. What is clear is that as you continue, your leadership journey you need to build behavior patterns, awareness and relationships that support your leadership needs and keep the isolation at bay. Strong leaders depend on others, but are not dependent on others; it is a fine line, but an important one.
When was the last time you mentally called yourself an idiot (or some other colourful expletive)? Was it in the last week? The last day? The last hour? For many this is something that happens a lot, but has become part of the “scenery” of our day – we don’t even notice when we are doing it. Negative thoughts we direct towards ourselves have an impact that we should be aware of, because this is something everyone does at some point and you may be surprised to discover how often you do it (and who it impacts).
Start with data (as opposed to opinion, especially for those of you saying to yourself right now “This doesn’t apply to me”…test that). As you go through your day make a check mark for every time you have a negative thought aimed at yourself (in a note book or whatever you take with you consistently to meetings). Do this for a week, although a few days worth of tracking may be all the data you need. With that data in mind think about the impact of hearing something negative about you that many times a day. How does this impact you emotionally? Would you do that to another person in your life? Would you point to every perceived flaw, annoying behavior or mistake? No you wouldn’t, because if you did you’d get to have a lovely chat with the folks in HR. But that is not the only reason we don’t do this to others, it’s also because we know it does not serve a useful purpose. Humans are perfectly imperfect and no one expects anyone in their life (work or personal) to be 100% all of the time. So why are we so hard on ourselves?
Likely because we do this reflectively in our own minds and feel it impacts no one else. Is that the case? If we can see (by looking at the data, all those check marks) that negative self-talk is present we can then view this information in a new light. Is it holding us back in life? Is it making us more emotional, stressed, or keeping us from stretching ourselves? Likely it is, in small and subtle ways that we may not be able to perceive, but may sound like “I’ll skip this meeting, I need to focus on getting this work done well” or “I need more experience in this area before I’d take on that assignment”. Think about the ways you “talk” yourself out of potential opportunities because of a consistent current of negativity from the one person who knows you better than anyone else - you.
Bashing ourselves mentally with our flaws impacts others as well. In today’s workplaces nothing happens in isolation, if you are being hard on yourself it is likely “peeking out”, visible to your colleagues and boss (you are reluctant to take on new things, or don’t contribute as much as you could in meetings). Likely it is visible at home too, creating behavior patterns that may impact our friends and families (self-exasperation or testiness with others as examples). How we show up for ourselves and provide self-support for what we do is very important. It is the foundation of our self-confidence and allows us access to more in work (and in life) than any other single resource. It’s also important to view self-support as the key-stone to being able to support the people around us. Imagine a world where “mistakes” become “new things we’ve learned” and where insecurity points to a gap that (now identified) can be addressed. We can create that world for ourselves, no one else will. Negative self-talk won’t disappear entirely, but it is up to each of us to manage it when it is present and turn it to something useful rather than allowing it to bludgeon our energy and confidence, impacting us and those we come in contact with everyday. Be mindful of how often you may be wielding a mental cudgel – awareness is key and a simple step that can provide unending benefits. Gather the data and see for yourself.
Good intentions are something everyone aspires to, and many of us achieve them, but there is a difference between intentions and intent. Good intentions mean we’ll be on time as much as possible and complete our work to a high standard, but it is usually future oriented and based in a behavior or action we are going to undertake, not one we are engaged in at the moment. Intent, on the other hand is something quite different as it is very much about what is happening in the present and how the quality of our present engagement impacts the future.
Intentions are often focused on what “I will do” (intentions by nature being personal), whereas intent is focused on what is happening in the moment, which can be an “I” or a “we” activity. As an example, think about the way you interact in a meeting (a casual or a formal meeting). Typically (in a group meeting) our attention is split between what has happened in the time before the meeting (while we are waiting for everyone to get settled), what needs to happen after the meeting, (mentally forming “to do” lists). When required, we exert periods of focus on what is being said and/or required of us as participants in the meeting. Our minds wander, but that does not make us bad participants, you may even consider it multitasking. This likely happens less often in one-on-one meetings (or interpersonal interactions), and more often within group meetings. There is a range of focus, but spend a few minutes considering the various types of meetings you’ve attended in the last few days; what percentage of your time was spent focused solely on the meeting and it’s participants while you were there? Was it 60% - 70%? Less? More? Now consider what you, as a meeting participant, would appreciate most from other participants in your meetings and interpersonal interactions. It’s likely a lot closer to 100%.
So why is there a delta? If we are being compassionate to ourselves we can look at the energy and mindfulness it takes to move from one form of engagement to another. If you are working on a spreadsheet just before you enter into an interpersonal interaction it can take you a full minute or more to bring your mind completely into what is required of you – a little bit like conversational jet lag. We expect this when we are engaging others ad hoc (and they of us), but what about the interactions that are pre-planned? Often, when we are the chair of a meeting, or the person who called the meeting, we are carrying the burden of focus for the meeting. That often means our heads are filled with the agenda and what needs to happen next, and we are not noticing (in any meaningful way) how our participants may be keeping pace with the intent of the meeting. Everyone in the room is necessary to be there, to either learn or collaborate, but we often leave the “heavy lifting” to the meeting owner. In this scenario, how valuable is the meeting to either the meeting owner or the participants?
Intent is something we take with us wherever we go, and it speaks to the quality of our presence as we interact with others throughout our day. What is your intent as you head into a pre-planned meeting? Do you have one? What about interpersonal interactions – how focused are you on the needs of the other participants in conversations? Intent can make a noticeable difference in the quality of our interactions, but it isn’t something we have been asked to practice on a consistent basis (or maybe we have and we’ve compromised). Somewhere along the way, we’ve gotten used to people giving us 60% - 70% or so of themselves at any given time. What would happen if everyone took steps towards focusing clearly on what is happening as it happens, and to do so with a high degree of quality? Would our interactions become more meaningful? Would our meetings be able to accomplish more in a shorter space of time? Could we give others 100% of our attention consistently?
I pose these questions to you because this is something I’ve been exploring for myself. This has not been an easy undertaking, even though as a Coach I am practiced in being very present and aware in meetings with my clients. However, turning this level of quality and intent on others, and doing so with as many interactions as possible, has proved quite challenging. And exhausting. But it has been worth it as the people I live and work with have started to comment on how well our conversations have been going – how engaged I am and how they feel listened to. In my past these were the types of comments I consistently received from my clients, but not from my child, family and friends. When I stumbled upon that realization, I was appalled, and it has renewed my commitment to this undertaking. Quality makes an enormous difference to those around you, and it is found in your intent.
Carleen Hicks is a Human Resource professional, Leadership Coach and certified EQ-i 2.0 Practitioner. See more of her blogs on emotional intelligence at http://www.chhr.ca/resources and while you are there check out her Resources page to find great books, blogs and web sites you may enjoy.
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I believe in empowering others in many tangible ways. When I learn new career strategies or see something that might help others, I share it using my blog and website.