#19 – Assume They Didn’t Understand You

This is #19 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s another one you might enjoy.


Because much of the time, even most of the time, they didn’t.

And we, confident in both our content and delivery, having put in the time to get it “just right,” convince ourselves that they most certainly did.

They did not.

And they are not stupid or disrespectful or uncaring. They are normal human beings: distracted and self-centered. (I am not cynical about the human condition, I promise you, I just trust the preponderance of the evidence.)

If your message is banal, it will be heard and understood the first time.

If your message has even the slightest intimation of a change it will not be understood. This is not because the change you are proposing is unwieldy or even complicated. It is because as soon as a person hears that any kind of change is being requested of them, millions of years of finely tuned neural mechanisms blast away from the starting gate to fight off the pattern interruption and preserve the status quo.

This is a pre-conscious response, which is why “not understanding” has nothing to do with stupidity, disrespect, etc.

It’s a survival instinct that is disproportionate to the threat because it’s terrible at distinguishing small threats from big ones. It just knows that the status quo equals staying alive and so it goes all in to preserve it.

What’s a thoughtful messenger of change to do against this ancient and reactionary tidal wave?

Be redundant.

As one leader I know used to say, “The first time you tell your team anything, assume that you’ve confused them. You have to tell them at least six more times.”

This is not a scientifically proven model, but simply a way to emphasize the leader’s responsibility to go back to the core message as often as necessary for enough of the team to get it and to get moving in that direction.

Redundancy, it seems to me, is among the least utilized tools at a leader’s disposal. There is so much assumptive arrogance that a “great” change message (even when it’s good news!) will be understood the first time that the leader is left shocked and resentful that he has only sown confusion and frustration in the ranks.

Redundancy is a labor of respect and consideration. It is a commitment to enroll and engage, to involve and to educate. It requires personal contact, team by team if necessary. If it devolves into just another weekly announcement (here we go again…) both the point and power of it have been missed.

If it’s important enough for you to spend the time getting it right, it’s important that it be fully understood. Redundancy is your secret weapon. Use it wisely and then use it again.


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#18 – Build Capability Before You Need It

This is #18 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.” Here’s another one that I like a lot.


Since we know that nothing lasts forever, a healthy, necessary and realistic point of view for leaders to take is that whatever is working right now will not necessarily work next year. Rationally, we understand that. Emotionally, however, we are too frequently loathe to question ourselves when things are going well as if we might jinx our good fortune. Harry Potter taught an entire world of wizards that it was not only ok to “speak his name” (Voldemort, that is) but it was actually necessary to do so to have any chance of defeating him.

What follows are the direct and specific actions I believe leaders must take if they are to be successful in building capability for the future. I have divided the list into three categories: Developmental, Strategic and Cautionary.

DEVELOPMENTAL

1. Go to therapy. Don’t walk, run. Since many leaders are narcissists and all leaders have narcissistic qualities they are more fragile than they appear to be. (Both Michael Maccoby and Manfred Kets de Vries have written extensively and powerfully on the subject.) When they are wounded by criticism and questioning of their leadership they often don’t heal very quickly and may actually go to great lengths to even the score. As you know, it can get pretty ugly. And, since everything else I am about to advocate involves building infrastructure to question the system, leaders need to build a tough and thoughtful resilience to bear it well. They need to learn not to take every new idea for improvement as an indictment of their leadership but rather as a response to an invitation to keep getting better. For that to happen, those narcissistic wounds are better worked out in the therapist’s office than in the conference room. (If you’re wondering if someone’s a narcissist you can always just ask them.)

2. Send all key leaders to therapy. For all of the reasons stated above.

3. Or at least provide them with highly skilled coaching support. A great coaching relationship can and often does feel “therapeutic” (one senior leader I worked with referred to it as “couching”). The key is to have a safe, trustworthy partner to work through the holistic challenges of work, home and health. All necessary subjects for an effective executive to discuss and work on regularly.

4. Be more human than otherwise. That is to say, thoughtfully reveal your vulnerability, things you’re working on, the challenges you face. Items #1-3 will be very helpful in equipping you to do this. When you become accessible to your team as a human being you increase your power by strengthening your connections. Those connections become the lifeline for communication. And communication is at the heart of learning how to get better.

5. Treat people like adults. Respect them enough to be transparent about what’s going on. Be clear about what you need. Expect them to do the same for you. You’re not their mom or dad. You don’t have to protect them from the truth. You do need to give them a chance to rise to the occasion. If they can’t or don’t you’ll have the information you need to support them in their own development.

STRATEGIC

6. Make every leader accountable for a meaningful annual report of what needs to change in his or her function in the coming year. There is always something to improve. ALWAYS. Building in this kind of evaluative, reflective process expands our capacity for having hard discussions and normalizes the process of doing so. And this is to be done in open dialogue with the whole team, starting with the people who are actually doing the work each day. A simple question for them: if you could change one thing that would allow you to be more effective in fulfilling your job responsibility, what would it be? (Note: if you don’t get useful answers the first time around it’s probably because they don’t trust you enough to be honest. Earn that trust by keeping at it in a sincere and authentic way. If that’s hard for you, see item #1.)

7. Determine how you will change first. No meaningful change happens until the leader decides to change. Figure out what change in your behavior will help bring about the larger change initiative and get busy. “Be the change you want to see in the world” is not an invitation but an admonition.

8. Hold Pre and Post-mortem meetings for every project. In the pre meeting ask as many people as possible what they think could go wrong. Learn to anticipate the bumps and get your team ready to respond. The post-mortem is more of a no-brainer but usually overlooked because we’re already off to the next thing. Even a couple of simple questions – again, asked of all involved – will build openness and a greater capacity for learning: What worked? What didn’t? What did you learn about yourself and our team? 

9. Expect leaders to coach their teams and teach them how to do so. Here’s a fine job description for a key leader: spend time everyday understanding the business and how all the pieces fit together (educate your team about same); critically consider what’s working and what’s not in your function and engage your team in frequent dialogue about same; make plans for improvement by seeking as much perspective as possible; assign responsibilities to follow through on plans; provide coaching support and resources to ensure success; recognize and celebrate publicly and tangibly. This is a talking, engaging, coaching, critical thinking, relationship job. It is not a protect, defend, isolate, manipulate, scheme and otherwise preserve hierarchical hegemony job.

CAUTIONARY

10. Don’t pretend to do any of the above. Up to now, I’ve offered suggestions on what to “do.” Here’s my first and only “don’t do.” Any inauthentic attempt at any of the above will be sniffed out immediately and seen for the manipulative tactic that it is. You gotta mean it or don’t even bother. Good people will leave and you will be surrounded by scared people all too willing to tell you that you’re great and that what “we’re doing” is just right and will certainly last forever.

Until it doesn’t and you end up in therapy anyway.


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#14 – Tell the truth as fast as you can

This is #14 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


Sounds good, right?

It’s almost obvious, a little bit patronizing even.

And, yet.

It can be very hard to do.

How long do you sit on your feelings, questioning them, rationalizing them, negating them? How often do you rehearse difficult conversations in your mind, playing them out over and over, sounding more and more eloquent, clear and convincing, only to have it all fall apart in real time?

The problem with the word “truth” is that it may only be your truth. This is why it makes a lot of sense to heed Brené Brown’s advice and start any truth-telling conversation with this line: “The story I’m telling myself is…”

This has the powerful effect of keeping you on the hook for sharing what you are there to share and letting you off the hook for having to be right. Because your truth is not “right,” of course. It’s likely part of a larger truth, one that was co-created by you and someone else you probably care a lot about, but not a truth that can stand on its own.

But speed matters most of all, because the longer you stew on your truth, the bigger your self-righteousness becomes and the faster your resentment grows. Or is that just me?

It’s hard to speak up, to be vulnerable, to share our hurts, to risk being misunderstood and possibly mistaken. The sooner we do so, the sooner we find out what’s real and that’s when we earn the right, once again, to a free mind and an open heart.


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#13 – “I don’t know” is an acceptable answer

This is #13 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


Actually, it’s not just an acceptable answer, it’s often a great one.

It is wonderfully counterintuitive that the ability to say “I don’t know” comes from self-confidence. It is self-assurance in what we do know that allows us the ability to be more curious, rather than defensive, about what we don’t.

This is, for me, one of the signs of mature leadership (and parenting, too for that matter), the ability to openly and publicly “not know.” The power surge from “not knowing,” when treated as a collaborative and even connective moment, can be significant.

If a leader says “I don’t know” when asked a question by a team member, and then asks, “Do you have any ideas?” or “Who else do you think we could ask about this?” or “What resources do we have to figure this out?” that person is now jointly engaged as a problem solver. That person is now engaged at a much higher level.

Good leaders, like good parents, are facilitators of discovery, connection and learning. They do not see themselves as repositories of knowledge but as catalysts for the dynamic exploration of potential. They can’t define what that is with perfect clarity or precision, only that it is more likely to be discovered if we are all committed to the search.


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#12 – Never Be Afraid to Reinvent Yourself

This is #12 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


I took a new job last fall. I call it a “real” job because after the wonderful variety of  consulting work I’ve done for the last 7 years, as compelling and rewarding as that has been, it feels great to come to an office and be on a team again.

It feels great to be a part of something that is brand new, that I am jointly responsible for building from the ground up. It feels wonderful to put into practice, to attempt to prove in real time, the ideas, beliefs and commitments that I hold in my head and heart about what the modern workplace has the potential to be.

I feel the discomfort of adjusting to an open workspace, to the unexpected needs of colleagues, to the daily practice of sorting out when to push for more and when to back off, listen and learn.

I am relishing the opportunity to lead, to influence, to shape and to support. I am using all of my experience, skills and training in ways I did not know I would get to use them. I am attempting to model energy, belief, and a full-throated commitment to learning as our cultural secret weapon.

I am reinventing myself, once again. I am adapting, learning, growing.

I like it. I like it a lot.


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#11 – There is no “There”

This is #11 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For”


There is no “there.” There is only next.

In the domain of human development and learning, arrival is a myth.

Awareness and action are the currency of the realm.

It’s a currency that cannot buy completion or entitlement to a finish line. It can only buy the ability and the opportunity to keep moving forward.


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#10 – “Development” is a Verb

This is #10 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


Development is an action.

Like any effective action it requires insight and planning (reflection) to precede it but, at its core, development is about forward movement and progress. This is not to convey an image of “leaps and bounds” but of an active progression of small steps, the accumulation of which lead to new insights and behaviors which you can name as “developmental progress.”

I do not believe in the distinction between “personal” and “professional” development. Development is always holistic. What occurs in one element of your life occurs in all of the others as well.

The good news about that is that the actions one takes in any area of life will ripple across those perceived boundary lines and have impact on a much larger scale.

Development requires a commitment to remain in conversation with the primary themes that are yours to know and own and to gain more and greater understanding about those themes throughout your life.

This is action with no discernible end point which is why, needless to say, it can be very difficult to keep moving forward. These moments or periods of regression make a lot of sense. Past reactions and behaviors are known and comfortable. Establishing new reactions and behaviors can be exhausting and when you’ve had enough, you backslide into the comfort of the old.

At the very least, a regression serves as a reminder that you have moved forward, if not yet to a sustainable level, enough to indicate that it is possible to do so! And this is where remembering that development is a verb is so important. Unless you have given it away, you always retain your agency to act in your own best interest. You always get to choose to take the next step.

Small actions are still actions. And the right small actions, over time, have the potential to lead to compelling change.


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#7 – Get Moving

This is #7 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


I feel an energized anticipation when I am getting ready to move.

I feel engaged – challenged, curious, motivated – when I am in motion.

I feel rejuvenated, refreshed, stimulated, creative, purposeful, accomplished, and unstoppable when I return and come to rest again.

Some version of this is true whether it’s a sniff walk with the dog, an aggressive uphill run or a long meander on a forest trail.

I am not made for sitting at a desk for long stretches, though moments of insight, inspiration and even revelation do occur there.

I have determined, however, that those moments occur at a frequency proportionate to the quality of movement that I practice when I am not there.

There is no doubt at all that how well I work, and how affirmatively I live my life, depends on my resolve to get and to keep moving.


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#6 – You Are Creative

This is #6 in the series, “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”



There is no such thing as creative and non-creative people, only people who use their creativity and people who don’t.

— Brené Brown


Say to a room full of 1st graders, “Raise your hand if you are creative” and every hand goes up.

Say to a room of college students (in this case, business school students but I find it true for most adults), “Raise your hand if you are a creative” and about 10% will raise their hands.

What’s the difference? At a certain point in our development and our concurrent passage through traditional educational systems we are taught that creative expression is no longer valuable, that it is disconnected from skill and knowledge acquisition. This is not universally true, of course, and there have been rigorous efforts to change this model.

But we’re not there yet, not by a long shot.

This is a serious problem. First, because of the wholesale belief in a patently false narrative of personal devaluation. And second, because organizations consistently describe creativity as essential to their sustainability.

But back to you.

You may not paint or draw, read or write poetry or care much for museums. You may not play an instrument or design landscape features. None of these is large enough to contain your creativity.

You are creative because you are alive in the world, and by being so you engage the world, one decision, one challenge, one relationship, one opportunity at a time, every single day.

You can’t do that without creativity.

The 6-year-old inside of you knows this and is just waiting to introduce it to you once again. All you’ve got to do is invite them out to play.


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#4 – Know Your Strengths

Between now and March 22, I am happy to share “50 Ideas Worth Fighting For.”


What are you doing when you are at your best?

What are you doing when you feel the most accomplished, competent and confident? What are you doing when you feel energized, when time flies by, when your work is not work but a natural extension of yourself?

As you answer these questions, you are describing your strengths.

And your ability to do so – with clarity and conviction – is the best chance you have to make sure you get to use them as much as possible.

We are shy about our strengths. There is a common cultural conditioning to be experts at naming our deficiencies and novices at naming our gifts. This is a huge mistake, a massive cultural gap that will only narrow when you and I decide that it’s not just ok but necessary to name, to own, and to live out the very best of who we are.

We too often defer to others – especially authority figures, especially bosses – to tell us what we should be good at. Some know better than to do this but most do not. And so, it’s our responsibility to define them first so that we can be our own best advocates for doing more fulfilling work and living more fulfilling lives. It’s our responsibility to make it clear so that we can teach others how to work with us for mutual and sustainable success.

If after reading this you are scratching your head, wondering what your strengths are, go ask a few trusted colleagues and friends. Go ask them for examples of when you are at your best. Ask them to describe your strengths. And then listen, really listen, and trust what you hear.

The sooner you do so, the sooner you’ll give up on the temptation to fit the square peg of yourself into the round hole of that “great” opportunity. The sooner you do so, the sooner you’ll discover the consolation of awareness that leads to insight, and the insight that leads to action.


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