The Trap of Blaming Others

When things aren’t going your way, it may be tempting to deflect attention from your own role in things and blame others. Perhaps you’re blaming your spouse. Or boss. Perhaps you’re blaming a friend or colleague. Or the economy or inflation—or politicians, the media, or a rival political party. Your parents, or your circumstances.

Blaming may give you a feeling of satisfaction as you look outside for responsibility and wallow in the unfairness of it all. But that feeling is fleeting. In the meantime, you haven’t moved forward at all. In fact, you’ve moved backward.

No good comes from blame.”
– Kate Summers

 

Signs of Blaming

How to tell if you’re blaming others? When blaming, you’re likely:

  • holding others responsible for your own frustrations and problems
  • expecting others to change to suit your needs
  • showing defensiveness
  • causing emotional escalation with the person and issue at hand

It is far more useful to be aware of a single shortcoming in ourselves
than it is to be aware of a thousand in somebody else.
– Dalai Lama

 

The Problem with Blaming Others

kids blaming each other

Wherever you find a problem, you will usually find the finger-pointing of blame.
Society is addicted to playing the victim.”
– Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People

Though it may feel good in the moment, blaming comes with many problems:

  • Most importantly, it doesn’t work. You don’t move forward in any way, shape, or form when you’re blaming. (“The blame game is a waste of time. Any time you’re busy fixing blame, you’re wasting energy and not fixing the problem.” -Rick Warren)
  • It often backfires, making things worse.
  • Blaming robs you of your own agency.
  • It makes people defensive.
  • Blaming damages relationships. (People don’t like it at all when they’re the target of blaming.)
  • It reduces your productivity and effectiveness.
  • Blaming often entails lying—bending the truth to minimize or eliminate your own responsibility while exaggerating the fault of others. As such, it harms your credibility.
  • You suffer the most, not the person you’re blaming.
  • Blaming leads to escalation into bigger issues—especially when it’s unfair blame or blame that misses important contextual factors because you don’t have all the information you need.
  • You don’t learn from mistakes since you’re focused on the fault of others.
  • Blaming can lead to other negative emotions—such as anger, resentment, or even hatred or rage—which are even worse.
  • It can rob you of your potential influence on others.
  • Apparently, blaming can be contagious, leading others to fall into this trap as well in a downward spiral.

Blame is fascinating—it shapes our lives. It can be a benign way of positioning ourselves,
a gentle joust or banter, or it can be poisonous, hurtful, or devastating for its victims.
It can tear apart marriages and fracture work relationships;
it can disable major social programs; it can inflict damage on powerful corporations;
it can bring down governments; it can start wars and justify genocides
.”
– Stephen Fineman, The Blame Business

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Why You Blame

It’s natural and common to play the blame game. But that doesn’t mean it will serve you well. Your brain my subconsciously leap to blaming by default. What’s going on here?

Blaming is an odd combination of defense mechanism and attack strategy. You’re defending your precious ego by attacking another person with the assignment of fault. It’s a way to avoid or release negative emotions.

Blaming preserves your self-esteem by helping you avoid responsibility for mistakes. You want to be right and win the argument to protect your fragile ego. By blaming others, you feel like you can escape guilt and responsibility.

Blaming is also a form of social comparison, allowing you to feel superior and gifted with greater social status, at least in the situation at hand.

Also, blaming can come with perfectionism, giving us a way to maintain our illusion of perfection as we find fault in others instead of ourselves.

 

How to Avoid the Blame Game

So far in this article, you’ve seen what blaming is, the signs of blaming in action, the many problems with it, and why we do it so much.

But you can’t stop there. You need to know what to do about it—and what to do instead. Here are six top tips for avoiding the blame game:

  1. Stop ruminating on the problems at hand and turn your attention instead toward something more positive.
  2. Practice empathy and try to understand the context, motivations, and feelings of the other person. Work to account for the other person’s perspective. Ask questions and explore their perspective.
  3. Focus on finding a solution, not a scapegoat. In the end, that’s most important.
  4. Instead of assigning all the blame to another person, try a “50-50” split instead: assume equal responsibility for the problem, or at least joint responsibility. Ultimately, the allocation of blame matter much less than resolving the issues well.
  5. Focus on collaboration, not blame. Consider ways in which teaming up to address the issues may benefit you both and avoid unnecessary emotional potholes.
  6. Take full responsibility for your life, choices, behaviors, and outcomes, even if there are outside factors present (as there always are). It’s a powerful practice that will serve you well.

Final Thoughts

Though blaming is common and natural, don’t trade in it. It’s a trap. Blaming gets you nowhere fast and will even take you backward and cause damage. By avoiding the tram of blaming, you can improve your mental state, quality of life, relationships, leadership, and effectiveness.

It’s always easy to blame others. You can spend your entire life blaming the world,
but your successes or failures are entirely your own responsibility
.”
– Paolo Coelho, Brazilian novelist

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Reflection Questions

  1. Are you playing the blame game?
  2. Is it serve you well—or harming you?
  3. Which of the top tips for avoiding blame will you try, starting today?

Wishing you well with it.

 

 

 

Gregg Vanourek

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Postscript: Inspirations on Avoiding the Blame Trap

  • “When we blame, we give away our power.” – Greg Anderson
  • “To grow up is to stop putting blame on parents.” – Maya Angelou
  • “One of the most important ways to manifest integrity is to be loyal to those who are not present. In doing so, we build the trust of those who are present.” – Stephen R. Covey
  • “You become a victim when you blame yourself or others for some problem or error.” – Jay Fiset, Reframe Your Blame, How to Be Personally Accountable
  • “A loss is not a failure until you make an excuse.” – Michael Jordan
  • “Blame is the demonstrated lack of self-respect choosing to deposit one’s negative actions onto others to reinforce one’s view of being of good, fair, and approved.” – Byron R. Pulsifer
  • “Stop the blame game. Stop! Stop looking out the window and look in the mirror!” – Eric Thomas
  • “Blame means shifting the responsibility for where you are onto someone or something else, rather than accepting responsibility for your role in the experience.” – Iyanla Vanzant

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal development and leadership. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

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The Common Traps of Living: Which Are You In?

face and hands being buried

We all want a good life. To be healthy and happy. We want to love and be loved. To have experiences, enjoy comforts, and do certain things before we die.

All well and good. But too often we focus on what to do to get the things we want in life—and not enough on what not to do.

That’s where the common traps of living come in—the things that inhibit us from leading the life we want.

We all fall into traps in life. All of us. Moms. Dads. Leaders. Professionals. Interns. Students. Retirees. Geniuses. Dopes.

We all fall into traps in life.

Photo by Christopher Windus on Unsplash
photo by Christopher Windus on Unsplash

The point is not to beat ourselves up for not living perfectly. Nobody does.

Rather, the point is to recognize the traps we’re in—and get busy climbing out. Too often, we go through long stretches of our lives caught in several of these traps, yet pretending like all is well when it’s not. The sooner we address them, the better.

Common Traps of Living

Below are 22 common traps of living, based on my research and work with people in the U.S. and many different countries. As you read through them, note which ones have affected you.

  1. Clarity (lacking): being uncertain about your purpose, values, vision, aspirations, goals, or priorities.
  2. Climbing Mode: focusing so much on moving up the success ladder that you lose touch with other important things (like health or relationships).
  3. Comparing: measuring yourself against others and judging your worth by how you stack up.
  4. Conforming: following the crowd and fitting in with social conventions instead of blazing your own path.
  5. Disease of More: focusing on accumulating ever-more things, money, or accomplishments to try to be happy.
  6. Drifting: getting carried along by the current of outside influences instead of steering to where you want to go.
  7. Fear: holding back or not trying important things due to fears about failure or threats to image.
  8. Feeling Behind: feeling that others are racing ahead of you with more clarity or success.
  9. Golden Handcuffs: feeling chained to a job you don’t like due to the money, security, or prestige.
  10. Identity: having your sense of self wrapped up too much in work or how you’re perceived by others.
  11. Limiting Beliefs: mindsets about yourself that hold you back (e.g., that you’re not smart or good enough).
  12. Losing Yourself: feeling consumed by events or others’ priorities, surrendering your agency, initiative, or sense of self.
  13. Margin: always being “on” and running from task to task without downtime.
  14. Negative Self-Talk: inner dialogue that makes you feel flawed, unacceptable, or not enough.
  15. Perfectionism: setting unrealistic expectations for yourself or others or needing things to be flawless.
  16. Postponing: deferring plans or dreams because it’s not practical or “the right time.”
  17. Pretending: wearing a mask for others and impersonating someone you think is more appealing.
  18. Responsibility: not being fully accountable for your choices, behaviors, and results.
  19. Self-Deception: hiding the truth from yourself about your true feelings, motives, or circumstances.
  20. Self-Doubt: lacking confidence or questioning your capabilities and potential.
  21. Settling: accepting significantly less than what you want or deserve.
  22. Short Game: failing to invest in the future and deciding important things without considering the long term.

Which traps have you fallen into? Are there any which are particularly pressing now?

Photo by Tom Chrostek on Unsplash
Photo by Tom Chrostek on Unsplash

While this is a long list of common traps, there are many more. I’ve identified about sixty traps that inhibit us from leading the life we want.

See my new Traps Test to find out your top traps—and then get to work on climbing out of them.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

Reflection Questions

  • What are your top traps?
  • And what will you do about them, starting today?

P.S. – This always works best when you talk it through openly with others. We all fall into traps in life. We all have work to do. So get busy with the important work of intentional personal development. Reach out if you think I may be able to help.

 

 

 

 

Gregg

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Postscript: Inspirations on Traps of Living

  • “We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.” -Ernest Hemingway
  • “In school we learn that mistakes are bad, and we are punished for making them. Yet, if you look at the way humans are designed to learn, we learn by making mistakes. We learn to walk by falling down. If we never fell down, we would never walk.” –Robert T. Kiyosaki, Rich Dad, Poor Dad
  • “There is more to learn from mistakes than from successes.” –Richard Branson, entrepreneur
  • “Freedom is not worth having if it does not include the freedom to make mistakes.” -Mahatma Gandhi
  • “It was one thing to make a mistake; it was another thing to keep making it.” –Jodi Picoult, Handle with Care
  • “Smart people learn from their mistakes. But the real sharp ones learn from the mistakes of others.” –Brandon Mull, Fablehaven
  • “Being broken is what makes us human. We all have our reasons. Sometimes we’re fractured by the choices we make; sometimes we’re shattered by things we would never have chosen. But our brokenness is also the source of our common humanity, the basis for our shared search for comfort, meaning, and healing.” –Bryan Stevenson, social justice activist

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Burnout and the Great Resignation

Burnout has been a big problem for millions of people for a long time now. And it’s getting worse.

Burnout is also affecting more young people. And the pandemic, with all the extra stressors and pressures it’s brought to so many, is aggravating the burnout problem. These are major ingredients of the “great resignation.”

What is burnout? According to the Mayo Clinic, job burnout is “a special type of work-related stress—a state of physical or emotional exhaustion that also involves a sense of reduced accomplishment and loss of personal identity.”

When we’re burned out, we feel run-down and exhausted or empty. It’s related to overwork (when we work beyond our capacity) and workaholism, a state of addiction to work in which we struggle to switch it off.

 

The Covid Context

The pandemic has added fuel to this fire. Here’s some recent data:

  • 52% of survey respondents reported experiencing burnout in 2021, up from 43% in Indeed’s pre-Covid survey, and 67% say burnout has worsened during the pandemic.
  • According to a 2021 Deloitte survey, 77% of respondents say that’ve experienced burnout at their current job, with more than half noting more than one occurrence.
  • 91% say the quality of their work has been negatively impacted by having an unmanageable amount of stress or frustration.
  • 83% say job burnout can negatively affect their personal relationships.
  • Nearly 70% of professionals feel their employers are not doing enough to prevent or alleviate burnout.

Also, the average share of adults reporting symptoms of anxiety disorder and/or depressive disorder, has increased dramatically, from 11% in January-June 2019 (before the pandemic) to 41% in January 2021 (during the pandemic), according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

 

Effects of Burnout

We know that job burnout can have major negative effects on our health and lives, including:

  • Excessive stress
  • Fatigue
  • Insomnia
  • Irritability
  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • High blood pressure
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Weakened immune system

(Source: Mayo Clinic.)

 

Symptoms of Burnout

According to the Mayo Clinic, there are many symptoms of job burnout, including:

  • Becoming critical or cynical at work
  • Feeling low motivation to go to work and start working
  • Becoming impatient or irritable with others
  • Finding it hard to concentrate
  • Feeling disillusioned about the work
  • Lacking satisfaction from achievements
  • Using food, alcohol, or other substances to self-medicate or tamp down feelings
  • Experiencing health issues, including poor sleep, headaches, stomach problems, and more

 

Causes of Burnout

According to researchers, there are many causes of job burnout, including:

  • A sense of a lack of control, including an inability to influence relevant decisions
  • Unclear or unrealistic job expectations, including job scope creep
  • Dysfunctional work dynamics, such as micromanagers or office bullies
  • Lack of social support, including isolation at work or home
  • Work demands that impede on important family or social commitments outside of work
  • Lack of communication, feedback, and support at work
  • Frequent time pressures, raising stress levels
  • Limited upward mobility
  • The removal of boundaries between work and home

Note that burnout doesn’t come automatically from long hours. Whether it sets in can depend on many factors, including context, personality, mindset, and worker actions.

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

The Great Resignation

So where does all this leave us, amidst a pandemic with a burnout epidemic? According to a Microsoft survey of more than 30,000 workers around the world, 41% of workers were considering quitting or changing professions this year. In the U.S., more than four million people quit their jobs in April 2021. That’s the biggest increase on record, according to the Department of Labor.

Nearly half of millennials have left a job due to burnout, compared to 42% for all respondents, according to Deloitte.

The reasons for leaving a job are often multifaceted. Common reasons include not only burnout but also:

  • Substandard pay
  • Lack of meaning at work
  • Work that doesn’t fit with, or even violates, our values
  • Lack of dignity or respect at work
  • Feeling like a cog in a large machine
  • Lack of human connection
  • Lack of good management and proper recognition
  • Poor working conditions

The pandemic has caused a shift in priorities in life for many. In some cases, it’s provided motivation to pursue a dream job or more meaningful work. Or it’s stoked resentment about being treated poorly, or not getting adequate support. The “great resignation” is a tectonic shift that should wake us all up to the need to think and act anew about work.

 

What to Do About It

We’re all responsible for our own condition. Including the need to act when a situation is bad or toxic. Though the context is tough for many, there’s still much we can do not only to reduce or eliminate burnout. And to improve our working and living conditions:

  • Boundaries. Set boundaries and get better at saying “no.” If we try to please everybody, we’ll fail miserably. No matter how hard we may try, we can never do things just as others might want or expect.
  • Breaks. Take regular breaks (e.g., Pomodoro technique) to improve your physical and emotional state, gaining a fresh perspective in the process.
  • Exercise. Move your body more to build strength, endurance, and energy. It causes positive reactions in your body that affect your mood, and it helps you sleep well.
  • Gratitude. Be grateful for what you have. That can have powerful effects on your quality of life, including improved wellbeing, life satisfaction, sense of connectedness, and physical health.
  • Healthy Support Systems. Take time and care to develop relationships based on trust, diversity, reciprocity, commitment, openness, and vulnerability. Build healthy support systems that act like roots that ground us in life. (Source: LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives)
  • Hobbies. Find something you enjoy (e.g., gardening, hiking, photography) and build it into your daily or weekly routine.
  • Job Crafting. Craft your work intentionally. Take actions to shape or redesign what you do at work, especially changing your mindset toward your work to make it more satisfying and meaningful, but also changing tasks and relationships when possible.
  • Meditation and Mindfulness. Mindfulness has been defined as “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). Researchers have found many benefits from mindfulness practices, including improvements in mental and physical health, as well as performance.
  • Nature. Fresh air and sunlight are essential. Given all our screen time, we need to be sure we’re getting outside enough with walks, hikes, runs, bikes, or trips to the park.
  • Nutrition. Our bodies need good fuel if they are to remain resilient and energized.
  • Reframing. Reframe things from setbacks or defeats to challenges or opportunities (for learning and growth).
  • Sanctuary. Find places or practices of peace (e.g., nature, prayer), allowing you to get beyond your ego and connect with something larger than yourself.
  • Savoring. Fully feel and enjoy positive experiences, magnifying and extending them in the process.
  • Self-Reflection. Engage in self-reflection and seek to identify the root causes of your burnout. Look especially for what may drive a sense of resentment (such as work causing too much missed family time during the precious formative years of children).
  • Sleep. Sleep turns out to be one of the most essential practices for physical and mental health. Poor sleep has tremendous deleterious effects on a wide range of factors: addictive behaviors, anxiety, appetite, attention, concentration, creativity, decision-making, depression, ethical behavior, impulsiveness, irritability, memory, motivation, relationships. Don’t forget about naps.
  • Writing / Journaling. Research has shown that writing about stressful experiences can help people create meaning from them. (The same can be true for talking through feelings with others.)
  • Yoga. Yoga can increase flexibility, strengthen muscles, center thoughts, and relax and calm the mind.

In summary, lead yourself and intentionally craft your life and work, taking full responsibility for your life and refusing to adopt a victim mindset.

 

Reflection Questions

  • Are you at risk of burning out?
  • What are the root causes?
  • What will you do about it?
  • Which of the above practices work best for you?

 

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Postscript: Quotations about Burnout and Renewal

  • “The truth is that stress doesn’t come from your boss, your kids, your spouse, traffic jams, health challenges, or other circumstances. It comes from your thoughts about these circumstances.” -Andrew Bernstein
  • Burnout is “civilization’s disease…. It is not only an individual disorder that affects some who are ill-suited to the system, or too committed, or who don’t know how to put limits to their professional lives. It is also a disorder that, like a mirror, reflects some excessive values of our society.” -Pascal Cabot, Belgian philosopher
  • “Every important mistake I’ve made in my life, I’ve made because I was too tired.” -Bill Clinton
  • “In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” -John W. Gardner
  • “What do we want more of in life?… It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness.” -Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key
  • “Creating the culture of burnout is opposite to creating a culture of sustainable creativity.” -Arianna Huffington
  • “We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.” -Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek
  • “Of all ridiculous things the most ridiculous seems to me, to be busy.” -Soren Kierkegaard
  • “Burnout sets in when two conditions prevail: Certainties start to characterize the workday, and demands of the job make workers lose a sense of control.” -Ellen Langer
  • “A rested Andrew can do more in four hours than a tired Andrew can do in eight. It’s not only diminishing returns; [not being rested] is like a scorpion’s tail—it can undo things. That’s true of everyone’s productivity and particularly in an intellectual role like that of a CEO. A lot of boards don’t get that. People need to be fresh.” -Andrew Mackenzie, CEO, BHP
  • “Burnout is about resentment. [Preventing it is] about knowing yourself well enough to know what it is you’re giving up that makes you resentful.” -Marissa Mayer, tech executive
  • “Overwork sucks us into a negative spiral, causing our brains to slow down and compromising our emotional intelligence.” -Annie McKee
  • “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” -Ovid
  • “Burnout is a state of emptiness, to be sure, but it does not result from giving all I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” -Parker Palmer
  • “No matter how much value we produce today—whether it’s measured in dollars or sales or goods or widgets—it’s never enough. We run faster, stretch out our arms further, and stay at work longer and later. We’re so busy trying to keep up that we stop noticing we’re in a Sisyphean race we can never win.” -Tony Schwartz
  • “It is not enough to be busy; so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?” -Henry David Thoreau

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Are You Trapped by Success?

success trap--man on a hamster wheel

Are you trapped by success? It’s an odd question. How can success be a trap? Is that even possible?

Turns out it can be a big trap. Below are 15 quick ways.

 

1. Addicted to Success

In a culture that worships success, we can become obsessed by it. It can consume most of our waking hours, and most of our waking thoughts. It can become a compulsive drive. We can build our lives around the pursuit of success. But what is success, actually? Have we taken the time to define what it means for us, in our current chapter of life, based on our own values?

 

2. Success Can Lead to Overwork

The pursuit of success can become all-consuming. It can cause us to be busy all the time, with a perpetual deficit of downtime. We never feel fully rested and renewed. Or we start losing our perspective and our resilience. We get run down and, ironically, start to lose our motivation and productivity.

 

3. The More We Aim for It, The More Elusive It Becomes

Some things in life aren’t exactly logical and linear. It’s not a matter of inputs in leading to inputs out. Some things don’t respond to sheer willpower or muscle. Some things in life are more nuanced.

We can’t force a baby kitten to feel comfortable with us. We can’t force someone to love us, no matter how hard we try. In fact, it may push them away. If we go bounding into the woods seeking wild game, they may never appear unless we sit quietly for a while and let them come to us in their own time. We can’t force happiness, at least the real kind. There’s a difference between a real smile that comes when we see an old friend after a long time apart and a forced smile that everyone can tell is fake.

Success will likely elude us if we’re too focused on it. Rather, it’s something that ensues when we get our life in order, when we’re clear about who we are and act accordingly—letting go of the trappings of false influences. Of course, success usually requires focus and hard work. But it’s best when we get lost in our work because we love the process itself and how it makes us feel while we’re doing it, not because we’re set on some arbitrarily created result with factors well beyond our control.

 

4. Locked into the Wrong Thing

What if the one thing that we excelled at isn’t right for us? What if we’re destined for something more, or something different? When did we make that decision about our career path, and on what basis and with what practical experience about what it actually entailed? Too often, it’s when we’re too young to make sound decisions, and we panic and play the short game or become overwhelmed by all the options.

 

5. Stuck in One Phase of Life

Perhaps we’re changing, with new interests emerging, but how could we possibly abandon the things that took us to the top? So we stick it out. We don’t grow and evolve into new challenges and opportunities better suited to our current circumstances. We flounder.

 

6. Never Feeling Successful Enough

There’s this illusion that once we become successful, then we’ll feel happy. But it’s often not the case. There are many “successful” people who are unsatisfied or even miserable. Many reach one goal, enjoy it for a while (literally a few days), only to then start focusing on the next goal, and the next one, ad infinitum. The happiness never arrives, because there are always new goals out there and higher levels of success, achievement, recognition, or wealth. Researchers call this the “hedonic treadmill”: the tendency to remain at a stable level of happiness despite a change in fortune or the achievement of goals. We rapidly adapt to the new circumstances and simply increase our aspirations. We get tripped up by social comparison among a new class of people, perpetually raising the expectations.

 

7. Resistance to Being Imperfect

Success comes with lots of perks, from wealth and power to comfort and prestige. But it can also make us feel like we need to be perfect. Otherwise, how can we be worthy of success? We fear making mistakes or being wrong in front of others, lest they start to question our worthiness. So we harbor a secret terror of being discovered as a fraud or of letting our imperfect humanity come through. We wear a mask of projected perfection and total confidence, secretly hoping that people can’t see through it. It’s exhausting. Nobody’s perfect. We can’t always be on, and right, and put-together. In this charade, we miss out on what Brene Brown calls “the gifts of imperfection,” including authenticity, self-compassion, connection, intimacy, and more.

 

8. The Burden of Success

Yes, success has its privileges. But it can also feel like we’re walking around with a hundred pounds of bricks on our backs. We carry the pressures, the expectations, the demands, the effort, the work. Life can start to feel like a burden we must bear.

 

9. The Illusion of Circumstances

As we chase success, it can feed into a trick our minds play on us, the illusion that the quality of our circumstances determines the quality of our lives. It’s such a pervasive belief that we can go through our whole lives without ever pausing to question it. The logic goes like this: When we’re successful and things are going well, we feel good and we’re happy. When we’re unsuccessful or in pain, uncomfortable, or facing a challenge (ourselves, or for our loved ones), we feel bad and unhappy.

The truth is that we can feel good even when our circumstances are bad. We can return to our values and sense of purpose. Or we can revisit our personal history and what makes us who we are. We can remain grateful for all that we have and have had. And we can stand still in awe of the gifts of life even when things are tough. We can be unflappable in the storms that are a natural part of life. We don’t have to let our thoughts spiral down with our circumstances.

 

10. The Myth that Success Is the Point of Life

The belief that success is the point of life is another mental trick that we can go through life without questioning. The point is to climb the ladder of success, right? To win the game, right? To be the best, or to achieve success, right? Not so fast.

Aren’t there more important things than achieving success and winning? What about love and our precious relationships? And what about contributing to something greater than ourselves, to our family, our community, our world, or a worthy cause? What about character and integrity? And what about our faith, or spiritual practice, or connection with something deeper and more significant than points on a scoreboard or zeros in our bank account? Yes, we can do great things on a quest for success, but is that really the point of it all?

 

11. Success Can Take Us Away from Ourselves

As we get caught up in the image, in the prestige, in the chase, we can drift away from our core, from who we really are and what we value. We can get so caught up in the chase that we compromise our integrity on the way to the top. And we can get so driven that we lose sight of the things that capture our hearts. We can lose our artistry and our soul. Or we can become success robots, following social programming instead of pursuing our calling.

 

12. Success Can Take Us Away from Others

As we drift away from ourselves, we can also drift away from others. From our spouse or partner, because we’re so busy and have such important things we need to do. Or from our own children in their precious formative years or their struggling adult years, because we’re so caught up in our own stuff. From our extended family, from the friends we cherish, from our neighbors and community. We’re busy like bees, so we let our relationships suffer or die.

 

13. The Comparison Game

When we’re in chasing-success mode, it becomes a numbers game: How do we stack up against others in terms of salary, promotions, title, awards, fame? We start judging our worth by how we stack up on superficial metrics, falling into what Father Robert Spitzer called the “comparative ethic,” instead of the “contributive ethic.”

 

14. The False Metrics of Success

When we take a mercenary view of success, we start measuring it in cold and calculating ways: cash, net worth, position, power, number of followers or direct reports. These may send our ego to the moon, but do they keep us warm at night and light us up? Will they hold up and stand the test of time as we look back on our lives?

 

15. Narrow Views of Success

Somewhere along the way we can start to view success in overly narrow terms, thinking about it in terms of professional, financial, and relative social terms—wealth, prestige, celebrity. The problem with this thinking is that, as Clayton Christensen has noted, it causes us to over-invest in our career while under-investing in our health, family, friends, community, spirituality (or mindfulness), and fun.

 

Reflection Questions

  • Are you trapped by success—or caught up too much in the chase?
  • Which of the traps above resonated most with you?
  • What will you do about it, starting today?

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Do You Have Margin in Your Life?

Many of us are always “on” these days, running from task to task. Never-ending demands. Frenetic pace. We fill every available moment with activity or scrolling through our digital feeds. The problem: We don’t have enough margin in our lives.

Young hustlers making it happen. Working parents managing the household. Climbing the corporate ladder or growing our small business or nonprofit. Perpetual busyness.

It feels heavy always going at this pace. We get exhausted.

It’s not common to talk and think in terms of margin in our lives. But it’s needed now more than ever. A margin is the border between things, like the margin on a page. Filling every page up to the max just gets overwhelming.

 

The Consequences of Not Having Margin in Life

The consequences of not having margin are severe: lower quality of life, less happiness and fulfillment, and lower performance at work over time.

“If I was to sum up the single biggest problem of senior leadership in the Information Age, it’s a lack of reflection. Solitude allows you to reflect while others are reacting. We need solitude to refocus on prospective decision-making, rather than just reacting to problems as they arise.”General James Mattis, former U.S. Secretary of Defense and four-star Marine Corps General

It can damage to our health and relationships—and our soul. Not having enough margin in life can lead to burnout and a sense of emptiness. It takes time away from the things we enjoy, such as hobbies or time with friends. And it prevents us from exercising enough. Notably, it also induces us to stress-eat, binge-watch, or skimp on sleep.

 

The Benefits of Margin in Life

Having margin gives us room to breathe, to reflect and renew. To “sharpen the saw,” as author Stephen R. Covey wrote. With margin we can rise up and view things with perspective. We can reactivate our creativity and wisdom.

When we have breathing room, we can start to see where we’re going wrong—where we’re shooting ourselves in the foot with dysfunctional behaviors. We begin to see the possibilities for change.

Without margin, we keep our heads down and keep ploughing forward, stuck in the same traps and not even admitting it to ourselves. Sometimes we’re too busy and distracted to notice.

What to do with the margin we carve out in our lives? With it, we can:

  • reflect on what’s important
  • assess how things are going
  • see if there’s a gap between the life we have and the life we want
  • consider new ideas for closing that gap
  • experience mindful living in the present, without fretting about the past or worrying about the future

 

Why Is Having Margin in Life So Hard?

It sounds simple enough, but it’s not an easy feat in today’s world of dizzying distractions and cunning algorithms designed to hijack our attention with chemical manipulations in our brains. At bottom, they’re not giving us a better life but an escape from it.

“It’s a social-validation feedback loop. Exactly the kind of thing that a hacker like myself would come up with, because you’re exploiting a vulnerability in human psychology.”Sean Parker, first president of Facebook and co-founder of Napster

The evidence is alarming. Average daily digital content consumption (including time spent on social media, news sites, and streaming) is now just under seven hours (six hours and 59 minutes), according to a recent Forbes report.

This can lead to what psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “psychic entropy,” a condition of inner disorder in the mind, often including a chaotic mental review of things that impairs our effectiveness. He writes that it “involves seeing more to do than one can actually accomplish.”

It’s especially difficult if we’re trying to please everyone and not learning to set boundaries and say no—a big challenge for some people. In turn, this leads to us becoming overcommitted and falling into a death spiral of too much anxiety without the mental and emotional fortitude to deal with it and too much work volume without enough deep work to handle it.

“Slow down and remember this: Most things make no difference. Being busy is a form of mental laziness—lazy thinking and indiscriminate action.”Tim Ferriss

For some, a compulsion to achieve, win, or achieve recognition or status prevents us from carving out enough margin in our lives. This can lead to workaholism, a state of addiction to work in which we can’t switch it off or stop thinking about it. Another factor is being overly optimistic about what can get done by when—wearing “rose-colored glasses,” as they say.

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

How to Get More Margin in Your Life

So, how to get more margin in our life? It helps to acknowledge the problem first, perhaps flowing from an assessment of how we’re spending our time and determining the areas in which it’s not time well spent. (Yes, there are apps for that.)

Perhaps most importantly, we must get clear on what’s important to us, starting with our values (what we value most in life—and the behaviors that manifest those things), purpose  (our reason for being, or what infuses our life with meaning and significance), and aspirations for our life and work. Modern movements like essentialism and minimalism can help us avoid the trappings of overconsumption and overscheduling while distilling things to the essential few that enrich our lives.

It’s essential to establish clear and challenging criteria for what to say “yes” to and to get better at saying “no” to many things that come across the transom in our lives. As author Greg McKeown advises, “If it isn’t a clear yes, then it’s a clear no.”

Next, we need to build renewal into our days, giving us a sense of serenity instead of that precarious state of anxiety from the cumulative effects of overwork, stress, poor sleep, and not taking caring of ourselves or connecting enough with others. There are limits to our energy. We need good habits of rest and renewal.

“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” John W. Gardner

Even better if we can find “sanctuary” in our lives—places and practices of peace that restore our hearts. Places of quiet and tranquility. Beyond the striving, beyond the chase, beyond the willfulness, there’s an acceptance, a yielding, a comfort with the present moment and a willingness to see things for what they are and ride with the flow of life. It’s the serenity beyond the stress and struggle.

It helps to schedule margin into our lives: put it on our calendar and protect it. We must regain control of all the things that eat into margin, such as email or Slack, meetings, smartphones, interruptions, and messy workspaces. Also, we need to get better at anticipating and preventing distractions, thereby creating the conditions for focus, flow, and deep work.

We should also look for smaller things we can do—quick and easy hacks that help us preserve margin. In his book, Indistractable, Nir Eyal, recommends the “ten-minute rule”: waiting ten minutes before giving in to an urge to check our phone as a pacification device.

 

Reflection Questions

  • Do you have enough margin in your life?
  • How is lack of margin harming your wellbeing, relationships, or work?
  • What steps will you take, starting today, to reclaim your life and the margin it requires?

 

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Postscript: Inspirations to Help You Build More Margin in LIfe

  • “I love a broad margin to my life.” -Henry David Thoreau
  • Margin is “time to make room for change.” -Jeff Sapadafora, author and coach
  • “What do we want more of in life?… It’s not accomplishments. It’s not popularity. It’s moments when we feel like we are enough. More presence. More clarity. More insight. More truth. More stillness.” -Ryan Holiday, Stillness Is the Key
  • “Human beings have always employed an enormous amount of clever devices for running away from themselves, and the modern world is particularly rich in such stratagems. We can keep ourselves busy, fill our lives with so many diversions, stuff our heads with so much knowledge, involve ourselves with so many people and cover so much ground that we never have time to probe the fearful and wonderful world within. More often than not we don’t want to know ourselves, don’t want to depend on ourselves, don’t want to live with ourselves. By middle life, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” -John W. Gardner, Self-Renewal
  • “Take rest; a field that has rested gives a bountiful crop.” -Ovid
  • “All profound things, and emotions of things are preceded and attended by Silence…. Silence is the general consecreation of the universe.” -Herman Melville
  • “We should not hurry, we should not be impatient, but we should confidently obey the eternal rhythm.” -Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

 

Books that Will Help Change Your Life with More Margin

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Back to Normal? Not So Fast

In fortunate parts of the world, there’s a palpable sense of relief and celebration as life begins to get back to normal after a brutal pandemic year. In some quarters, there’s jubilation—and rightly so after so many shocks to so many for so long. And of course the pandemic rages on, with so many people suffering, struggling, recovering, mourning, and more.

But back to normal? Not so fast.

We sense, beneath the surface, that this is an opportunity to revisit and reinvent.

Surely there are some things we just want to bring back—things we missed. But we should be wary of falling back into old patterns that no longer serve us.

Now that we’ve received stark reminders of our own mortality and that of our loved ones, now is a good time to ask:

What kind of life do I want?

What kind of life have I been living?

What changes would I like to make?

When it comes to the life we’ve been living, a fair assessment will likely reveal some pain points. Consider the following traps of living:

Common Traps of Living:

  • Am I avoiding deeper issues or pressing pain points in my life, and numbing myself with distraction, binge-watching, or other escapes?
  • Have I suffered from burnout?
  • Am I living paycheck to paycheck with unsustainable or dangerous approaches to consumption and debt?
  • Have I been cocooning, losing close connection with family and friends?
  • Have I fallen into the comparison trap?
  • Am I conforming to a conventional path instead of blazing my own?
  • Have I been drifting through life?
  • Am I stuck in ego-centric living, making everything about me?
  • Does my life feel empty, without a sense of meaning, passion, or joy?
  • Am I caught up in pleasing others?
  • Have I been postponing my happiness?
  • Am I chasing prestige?
  • Have I been pretending to be someone I’m not?
  • Am I settling?

These questions, while unsettling, can also be motivating, because they point to the gap between who we are and who we long to be.

We must begin, though, with an honest appraisal.

“If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule. Never lie to yourself.”Paulo Coelho, Brazilian writer

The appraisal above should lead not only to insight but action. It doesn’t need to be complicated. Where are you doing well, and where are you struggling? You can use whatever system you like, even as simple as a list, writing in one column “What I like about my life” and in another column “What I don’t like.”

The left column (What I like) is one for appreciation, and a place to revisit to make sure you continue the good things and savor them.

The right column (What I don’t like) is one for action. The point is not to wallow in defeat but to take a cold hard look at reality and then decide: What will I do about it? (And how, and when, and with whom?)

Many of us have several pain points in our life. That’s okay. Don’t get bogged down in trying to solve everything at once, or in too much planning.

Begin with the most pressing pain point. Start with small things you can do to make progress, to generate energy and momentum.

Now is your chance. Will you take it?

Reflection Questions:

  • What aspects of your life do you wish to keep or get back to?
  • What aspects of your life do you want to change, and how will you get started?

P.S. – Another level of analysis for the “back to normal” question is the societal level. Surely, there are some things we want to bring back, but it’s also a great opportunity to revisit vexing issues like financial fragility, inequality, racism, political division and disdain, digital addiction and manipulation, climate change, unsustainable practices, and the role of business in society.

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Gregg Vanourek is an award-winning author and entrepreneurial leader who trains, teaches, and speaks on personal development and leadership. Gregg is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership (a winner of the International Book Awards). Check out Gregg’s manifesto on how to avoid the Common Traps of Living, or his TEDx talk on “LIFE Entrepreneurship and Discover Mode.” Twitter: @gvanourek

Are You Drifting through Life?

“Let us consider the way in which we spend our lives.” -Henry David Thoreau

How did I get here?

Is this what I wanted for my life? Is this what I chose?

Life can be messy. Many of us go long stretches of our lives on autopilot. We sleepwalk through our days.

 

It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten-track for ourselves.” -Henry David Thoreau

 

One of the common traps of living is drifting: getting carried along by the current of outside influences, without traction on our deeper aims.

At some point, we stop and take stock, only to find that we’ve been wandering aimlessly.

Even while busy and pressed, we’ve been passive. Or reacting. Or settling.

Given these tendencies, we need to pause and take stock. Begin with questions:

  • Are you clear and intentional about a deeper purpose, about upholding your core values, and moving toward a compelling vision of what a good life would be for you, your family, your friends, your colleagues, and your community?
  • Are you demonstrating agency? Initiative? Ownership? Responsibility? Action?
  • Are you proactive?

If you don’t like the answers to these questions, don’t beat yourself up. The good news is that you’ve now regained your awareness. Go easy on yourself, but commit to taking your life back.

Next, as you think through what to do, avoid the trap of analysis paralysis. You don’t need a perfect plan for how to fix everything.

What you need most of all is to start.

 

Take the Traps Test

We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.

 

More Articles in this Series on the Common Traps of Living

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

Why Conflict Is Good–And How to Manage It

Do you know how to manage conflict well? Most people avoid conflict. Why?

There are many reasons, with fear at the heart of them all:

  • Fear of tension
  • Fear of hurting others
  • Fear of rejection
  • Fear of escalation of tough issues
  • Fear of a break in the relationship
  • Fear of an unexpected outcome, perhaps tougher to manage
  • Fear of being viewed as a troublemaker
  • Fear of retaliation
  • Fear of having to deal with difficult consequences

These fears are understandable. So we end up avoiding it like the plague.

“In my work with leaders and their teams, I’ve discovered that a universal talent is the ability to avoid conversations about attitude, behavior, or poor performance.”Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life, One Conversation at a Time

 

Signs of Conflict Avoidance

Conflict avoidance is widespread in organizations and teams. Signs of it in action:

  • People hold back and withhold opinions.
  • Meetings are boring or lame because people don’t really engage.
  • Team members don’t challenge each other.
  • Teams slide toward mediocrity since recurring issues never get addressed.
  • Leaders don’t invite differing views.
  • Some people are allowed to remain silent during meetings.
  • People say what they really feel only behind others’ backs.
  • Managers don’t get critical information.
  • People get cynical or burned out because the same problems keep reappearing.
  • People develop blind spots because they never get the feedback they need that’s tough and necessary.
  • People sense that the leader is abdicating responsibility by letting some things remain undiscussable.

Do you recognize these signs in your context? Here’s the problem: conflict is good for teams. In fact, it’s essential.

 

Mining for Conflict (Stop One in How to Manage Conflict)

Author Patrick Lencioni writes about a conflict continuum, ranging from artificial harmony on one end to mean-spirited personal attacks on the other, with most organizations leaning toward the former. The ideal conflict point is in the middle.

Productive conflict is what we need. Respectful conflict. Conflict grounded in trust. And conflict centered around shared goals, not egos or agendas.

Conflict can’t be productive without high levels of trust. How can you feel comfortable airing out the real issues if you don’t trust the people in the room? Without that trust, and the productive conflict it allows, how can the team drive toward shared commitments, accountability, and results?

With high trust and a focus on shared goals, we can channel conflict toward the pursuit of truth (what’s really going on here?) and the quest for high performance, instead of feeble attempts by fragile egos to notch points.

Managing conflict is hard because most people run away from it or get triggered by it, allowing stimuli to hijack their response. It’s uncomfortable because it elicits a physiological response: chemicals, hormones, blood flow, and heart rate signal “Danger, danger!”

Part of the job of leaders is to create an environment where people feel comfortable engaging in conflict instead of fleeing it. Better yet, viewing it as an asset. As a potential advantage.

Leaders must have the self-awareness and emotional intelligence to recognize that people handle conflict differently, based on their personality, upbringing, culture, and more. We must learn to read each other and help each other navigate this difficult terrain.

Lencioni recommends that leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold. Why? Some of the real breakthroughs can only be found on the other side of conflict.

 

How to Mine for Conflict

How does this work in practice? A leader must go digging for buried disagreements or the things that aren’t being said. Also, a leader must have the courage to bring the group’s attention to sensitive issues, where people feel uncomfortable, and push them to work through the issues despite the awkwardness and difficulty. A leader mustn’t let people avoid the issues or sensitive discussions. In addition, a leader must create a holding environment where it’s safe for some sparks to fly.

One leadership practice here is counterintuitive: catch people disagreeing during a meeting and praise them for modeling needed behavior. Remind them that the goal is not to focus on who wins, but on how conflict can help us understand core issues, root causes, and possible solutions.

By doing this, leaders can reframe conflict from a behavioral taboo to a necessary practice in the quest for excellence.

 

Regulate the Temperature

Another leadership practice here is “regulating the temperature.” Most teams generate friction and heat in their work together, especially in pressure-filled situations. Too often, leaders step in and artificially dial down the temperature as people start to feel uncomfortable.

That’s a mistake. The key is to keep the temperature hot enough—but not too hot—so that productive disagreement can continue as people work through the tension and start approaching solutions, instead of sweeping things under the rug.

Another leadership practice: depersonalize conflict. Reframe it away from who’s scoring points and toward a quest for understanding and a commitment to the shared vision.

A final leadership practice: driving to clear agreements and closure at the end of meetings. Too often, teams end meetings with ambiguity. People leave the meeting without a clear understanding of exactly what was decided and who’ll do what by when. Many meetings are poorly run, with tangents and poor time management. Attendees leave the meeting before a crisp accounting of the decisions and next steps is made. Leaders need to build in adequate time for this critical last step.

 

Not Just for Managers or Others in a Position of Authority

Important note: the leadership practices above don’t apply just to managers who have a formal position of authority. Distinguishing between leadership and authority, we note that anybody in a team can employ these leadership practices, regardless of their title. In our book, Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations, we noted the advanced leadership practice of building a culture of stewardship in which leaders unleash the leadership, initiative, creativity, and commitment of everybody in the organization by giving them an automatic license to lead, as long as they operate by the shared values. Conflict management is a skill we all need.

 

Conclusion: How to Manage Conflict

The bottom line: while most people avoid it, we should embrace conflict as a necessary part of effective teamwork (and relationships generally)—and learn how to manage it well.

Productive conflict saves time.

It builds trust.

And it leads to better results.

Productive conflict is a prerequisite for high-performing teams and trusting relationships.

Avoid conflict at your peril.

 

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Recommended Books on Managing Conflict Effectively

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (a winner of the International Book Awards). Take Gregg’s Leadership Derailers Assessment or his Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Root Cause of Ethical Failings (and Our Political Dysfunction)

Scandals. Fraud. Abuse of power. Greed. Corruption. Tax evasion. Coverups.

Once rare occurrences, coming back to haunt us every decade or so, these are now front and center in our daily lives and our daily news cycle. We see them in government, in business, and even in nonprofits and some religious organizations.

It seems as if we are in a race to the bottom.

While these challenges and failings have always been with us, we are not particularly well equipped to deal with them, in part because we fail to understand their root causes—and to hack away at them.

 

Three Symptoms of Ethical Hazard


Enter Professor Kenneth Goodpaster and what he calls the “three symptoms of ethical hazard”:*

1. Fixation: 

obsession with an overarching goal. For example, Enron executives were a group of hyper-ambitious overachievers with something to prove about being number one. Many were ruthless and uninhibited about doing whatever it took to get there. For NASA, it was fixation with set-in-stone space shuttle launch dates, contributing to tragic explosions and loss of life. Some mountain climbers get “summit fever,” where they are so focused on reaching the top that they recklessly risk their own lives and those of their teams.



2. Rationalization: 

attempting to explain or justify behavior with logical reasons, even when not appropriate. Sometimes values conflict (e.g., truth vs. loyalty). Rationalization entails choosing based on one “privileged feature” (e.g., total loyalty regardless of the truth). This creates “blind spots” in ethical thinking. Examples of rationalization are legion:

  • My boss told me to do it.
  • Everybody else is doing it.
  • It’s just this one time.
  • No one will find out.
  • It’s not my responsibility.
  • It’s not lying. (It’s just not telling the truth.)
  • We really need/deserve this.
  • I didn’t do anything. (I just looked the other way.)
  • You don’t understand the pressure we’re under.
  • “Business is business”: we’re just “maximizing shareholder value.”
  • “Politics is dirty”: we have to do this so we can do X, Y, Z….

 

“I… rationalized that what I was doing was OK, that it wasn’t going to hurt anybody.” / “I will live with this pain, with this torment, for the rest of my life.”Bernie Madoff, former financier and operator of a Ponzi scheme considered the largest financial fraud in U.S. history



3. Detachment: 

the sense of not being personally involved in something or of having no interest or stake. On ethical matters, Goodpaster raises the alarm when our actions are detached from our personal values. When detached, people bypass their heart and soul as they privilege only their head, and they anesthetize their humanity in the face of temptations to win or be perceived as successful. Here he draws on psychoanalyst and author Michael Maccoby, who warned that “careerism” was a self-destructive affliction suffered by many successful executives (and politicians, presumably), fueled by an obsession with winning and a “gamesman” view of all actions in terms of whether they will help you succeed in your career or campaign. The person detaches from his or her sense of identity (e.g., as a mother or father, citizen, etc.) and integrity, and one’s sense of self-worth becomes measured by performance in the market, game, or arena. Such detachment corrodes character and degrades mental health, with people leading divided lives between work and home.

Ethical Fading and Moral Disengagement

Two related dangers here are “ethical fading” and “moral disengagement”:

  • Ethical fading: “when the ethical aspects of a decision disappear from view,” such as when people focus so much on things like profitability or winning that they do not register unethical and illegal behavior (and the related aspects of harm, pain, conflict).
  • Moral disengagement: restructuring reality to make our actions seem less harmful than they are, convincing ourselves that ethical standards do not apply to us in a certain context, such as a political campaign. We mentally reframe destructive behavior as acceptable, and our brains are masterful at this misdirection.

Each one of these three symptoms is dangerous, but the real problem is that they converge into a single, terrible pattern. Goodpaster calls this “teleopathy”: the unbalanced pursuit of purpose. The word “teleopathy” combines two Greek roots: “teleo”: goal, target, or purpose; and “pathos”: disease or sickness.

We can think of it as a goal sickness—as being so focused on a goal that we pursue it destructively. Here’s the rationale:


We must win….
And we must be the best…
We must rule.

 

Antidotes for Ethical Hazard

Thankfully, Goodpaster notes that there are “antidotes” for the three symptoms of ethical hazard:


1. From fixation to perspective. 

We must see that our goals are part of a larger mission, the common good. We need to transcend our perpetual busyness and reactivity and build in reflection time, renewal rituals, and sanctuary. Without a larger and longer term perspective of community, duty, stewardship, and sustainability, we will spiral down in self-destructive patterns.



2. From rationalization to frankness. 

Since our rationalizations tend to be subconscious, coming from the older and faster parts of our brain that do not engage our most advanced reasoning capacities in our prefrontal cortex, we need radical honesty and candor through searching and piercing dialogue and healthy conflict with colleagues who recognize the tremendous value of vetting and pressure-testing our ideas and decisions and inviting conversations about whether we are upholding our shared values. We need people who are willing to “speak truth to power,” even when they are a voice of one. Ideally, our organizational culture fosters such questioning and conflict, all in service of making wise decisions and proper actions.



3. From detachment to engagement. 

This requires engaging our heart as well as our head. A powerful way to do that is to be clear about the higher purpose of the work you are doing (beyond winning a campaign or maximizing profits:

  • What will you do once elected?
  • What value can you create for all stakeholders through the profits you generate?
  • What positive impact can you have via serving others, and are you doing your part for the common good?

Now more than ever we need to identify and hack away at the root causes of our ethical failings and political dysfunction. We need to stop our senseless race to the bottom—in business with our myopic pursuit of profit and growth regardless of the consequences on people and planet, and in politics with our zero-sum game mentality of “I must win and you must lose” with all its attendant cynicism and disdain for fellow citizens who happen to disagree with us on some issues. We need to look for shared values and mutual interests instead of stoking mistrust, anger, and resentment. This race to the bottom is so dangerous because it threatens to destroy the very foundations of our communities and society. With perspective, frankness, engagement, and a healthy pursuit of shared purpose, we can redirect the race upward.


* Source: Kenneth Goodpaster, “Ethics or Excellence? Conscience as a Check on the Unbalanced Pursuit of Organizational Goals,”Ivey Business Journal, March/April 2004.

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!

The Problem of Bad Leaders – and Why People Keep Following Them

With a pandemic and all of its attendant human suffering, with economic devastation and so much loss of livelihood and dignity, with painful but overdue and much-needed conversations about structural and systematic racial injustice and inequity, and with so much division, disdain, and distrust, we need good leadership more than ever. Not because it is a cure-all, but because it is a prerequisite for stemming the crises, healing the wounds, and getting us moving in the right direction. Not just leadership at one level, but leadership at all levels of society and organizations. Not top-down, but leadership all around.

Yet too often we encounter not just mediocre but bad or even toxic leadership, the kind that not only fails to match the moment but that takes us in the wrong direction.

David Gergen, senior advisor to four U.S. presidents (from both parties), and author of Eyewitness to Power, wrote:

 

“Most books about leadership tell us what a person ought to do to become effective and powerful. Few tell us what to avoid. But the latter may be even more valuable because many people on the road to success are tripped up by their mistakes and weaknesses.”



No leader is perfect. We all have faults, flaws, blind spots, and shadow sides. But we have to understand and grapple with the problem of bad leadership if we are to figure out what kind of leadership is needed today and to develop the leaders needed for tomorrow.

Bad leadership comes in various degrees, starting with lacking desirable behaviors, moving to missing essential elements, and falling off a cliff when it comes to toxic leadership. We address each in turn below.

There are many things that can “derail” our leadership. We can avoid difficult tasks. We can be a bottleneck on decisions. We can struggle with effective communication, listening, or delegation. We can get caught up in firefighting—reacting to events without moving toward a worthy vision. We can be too hard or too soft (what we call “steel and velvet” in Triple Crown Leadership book). We can be overly rational and not sufficiently emotional, or vice versa. We can be impulsive, insecure, or intimidating. We can be overly optimistic or pessimistic. We can be perfectionist, people pleasers, or procrastinators. There are many derailers, and most leaders have multiple derailers. Those willing to learn and develop and can turn to coaches, mentors, advisors, feedback, training, books, and more.

Some modern leadership frameworks can inform this discussion. Authentic leadership from Bill George incorporates purpose, values, commitment to relationships, self-discipline, and heart, and these in turn generate passion, connectedness, consistency, and compassion. It is easy to see how some leaders may struggle in some of these areas.

 

Relevant Leadership Frameworks


Servant leadership from Robert Greenleaf emphasizes that the leader’s essential role is to serve others—the team, the organization, the community, the nation, the world. At its best, servant leadership involves listening, empathy, persuasion, stewardship, commitment to people’s growth, and building community. Greenleaf wrote that its best test is this: “Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” Again, it is easy to see how many leaders might fall short in some or many of these areas.

Transformational leadership (from James MacGregor Burns, Bernard M. Bass, Bruce Avolio, and others) causes significant change in individuals and social systems. In contrast with transactional leadership, which focuses on exchanges of expediency between leaders and followers via contingent rewards, transformational leadership involves emotional influence, vision and inspirational motivation, stimulation of creativity and reflections on values and beliefs, and consideration of the needs of followers. Clearly, this is a high standard, and many leaders fall short of it.

Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the best-selling classic, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the “Characteristics of Admired Leaders.” More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful and surprisingly consistent across nations: “for over three decades, there are only four qualities that have always received more than 60 percent of the votes… for the majority of people to follow someone willingly, they want a leader who they believe is

  • Honest
  • Competent
  • Inspiring
  • Forward-looking”

Clearly, leaders who lack honesty, competence, inspiration, and the ability to rise out of the present moment and look forward are not ones who will motivate and bring out the best in their followers. Honesty and credibility were far and away at the top of the list of things people want from their leaders:



“In every survey we’ve conducted, honesty is selected more often than any other leadership characteristic. Overall, it emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship…. First and foremost, people want a leader who is honest…. people want to follow leaders who, more than anything, are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leader’s word can be trusted, that they are personally passionate and enthusiastic about the work, and that they have the knowledge and skill to lead.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge

What we want from leaders can be greatly influenced by the context. For example, during a crisis we want leaders who show humanity and grace under pressure; seek credible information from a diverse array of experts; form a brilliant crisis response team; communicate reality, urgency, and hope; make themselves present, visible, and available; maintain radical focus; make big decisions fast; empower leaders at all levels; restore psychological stability as well as financial stability; use purpose and values as a guide; create a sense that people are all in it together; build operating rhythm with small wins; maintain a long-term perspective; and anticipate and shape the “new normal.”

The Mega-Derailers

Bad leadership gets much worse in a hurry when leaders are deeply flawed with what I call mega-derailers. In my experience, ego and fear are the mega-derailers that are most pernicious, and that underly many of the other derailers. Cynicism, derision, and hate are also candidates for this list.

In her book, Multipliers, researcher and executive advisor Liz Wiseman notes that some leaders are “diminishers” who stifle others for their own benefit and aggrandizement, as opposed to “multipliers” who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of those around them. Diminishers include:

  1. Empire builders who hoard resources and underutilize talent
  2. Tyrants who create anxiety and suppress thinking
  3. Know-it-alls who showcase their own knowledge and tell people what to do
  4. Decision makers who make abrupt decisions that confuse people through the attendant chaos
  5. Micromanagers who take over and control things without trusting others to do their work

Importantly, Wiseman notes that there are also “accidental diminishers” who unintentionally shut down the intelligence and potential of others, for example by making others dependent on them by always rescuing them, overwhelming others with a flurry of ideas, consuming all the energy in the room, driving so hard or fast that others become passive spectators, or being so optimistic that others wonder if they appreciate struggles and risks.

Another version of bad leadership takes the benefits of transformational leadership noted above and twists it into pseudo-transformational leadership, which is characterized by self-serving yet inspirational leadership behaviors, discouraging independent thought in followers, and little caring for them. According to leadership scholars Bernard Bass and Ron Riggio, pseudo-transformational leaders are self-consumed, exploitative, and power-oriented, with warped moral values.

Recently, there has been increasing attention given to the “dark side of leadership,” often focused on narcissism (excessive need for admiration, disregard for others’ feelings, inability to handle criticism, and sense of entitlement), hubris (foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence), and exploitation (taking unfair advantage). To those we can add the scourges of bullying and harassment. And of course there is a long history of authoritarian and autocratic leadership, and unethical and criminal leadership.

Toxic leadership, according to Jean Lipman-Blumen of Claremont Graduate University and author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders, is “a process in which leaders, by dint of their destructive behavior and/or dysfunctional personal characteristics, inflict serious and enduring harm on their followers, their organizations, and non-followers, alike.”

Clearly, there is a range of bad leadership behaviors, ranging from mild to severe, but the important question remains as to why people continue to follow bad or toxic leaders.

Toxic Triangle

Some scholars have written about a “toxic triangle,” a confluence of leader, follower, and environmental factors that facilitate destructive patterns:

  • Toxic leaders: charisma, narcissism, power, negative life themes and ideology
  • Susceptible followers: unmet needs, low self-evaluation, ambition, similar world view
  • Conducive environments: instability, perceived threats, lack of effective institutions and checks and balances

 

For years, many have pointed to the allure of charisma (compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others) and charismatic leadership, with people being seduced by leader characteristics such as wealth, power, or confidence. We can also look at the “psychodynamics of leadership,” including the psychological underpinnings of leaders’ behavior. Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye, Jr. wrote in his book, The Powers to Lead, “People persist in looking for heroic leaders.” Abraham Zaleznik, a leading scholar in this field, asks, “Is the leadership mystique merely a holdover from our childhood—from a sense of dependency and a longing for good and heroic parents?” Many people just long for somebody to come along and fix things, abdicating their own agency and responsibility, and they believe it when some leaders make unrealistic promises.

Ethics scholar Kenneth Goodpaster has done important work that I believe may shed light here. He notes that many leaders and followers get caught up in “teleopathy,” an unbalanced pursuit of purpose (e.g., winning in politics or sports, being a market leader in business, launching a space shuttle by X date), which is driven by fixation on set goals, rationalization of questionable behavior and decisions (e.g., everybody is doing it), and detachment from our personal values as we pursue those aims. I wonder if people are willing to stick with bad or unethical leaders because they are so caught up in winning and will do whatever it takes to prevail.



Our brains (and evolutionary biology) may also be part of the story. Social psychologist Jonathan Haidt writes in his book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion:


“People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds…. If you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.”


Our brains have evolved to seek and defend tribes, and to be exceptionally good at rationalizing the behaviors and decisions of our tribe (and its leader), a phenomenon that is often unconscious (so exceptionally difficult to defend against).

As we can see, there are many reasons why good people continue to follow bad leaders, and these neurological, psychological, and social phenomena are complex and powerful (and subject to exploitation by savvy operators and marketers).

In the end, we want leaders who add and multiply, not subtract and divide. We want leaders who get great results, with integrity, and sustainably. And we want leaders who create more followers and serve the larger good rather than themselves. We want leaders we admire, who make us better, and who call on our better angels.

Yes, we need better leaders, and we need them now. But most of all, we need to be our own best advocates and changemakers.

 

More Articles from Our Series on Ethical Leadership

 

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Gregg Vanourek is a writer, teacher, speaker, and coach on personal and leadership development. He is co-author of three books, including LIFE Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives (a manifesto for integrating our life and work with purpose and passion) and Triple Crown Leadership: Building Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations (called “the best book on leadership since Good to Great“). Take Gregg’s Traps Test (Common Traps of Living), check out his Best Articles, get his newsletter, or watch his TEDx talk. If you found value in this article, please forward it to a friend. Every little bit helps!