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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What Are Your Leadership Derailers?

Here’s the thing: we all want to be better leaders.

But too often we focus on what to do as leaders while neglecting what not to do.

That’s where leadership derailers come in—the things that take us off track and inhibit our leadership effectiveness. If we want to be good leaders, we must be aware of our derailers and begin working on them.

“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.”David Gergen, political commentator and senior advisor to four U.S. presidents, from his book, Eyewitness to Power

10 Common Leadership Derailers

Here are ten common derailers, based on my research and work with leaders from many different industries, sectors, countries, and stages of career development:

  1. Avoidance: avoiding difficult tasks, situations, or conflicts.
  2. Burnout: becoming run-down and feeling exhausted, often due to lack of self-care.
  3. Bottleneck: feeling you must make all decisions or taking on too much work yourself, causing delays.
  4. Delegation: not entrusting tasks to others sufficiently, leading to reduced motivation.
  5. Feedback: not providing feedback well or often enough, or not soliciting it enough or receiving it well.
  6. Insecurity: lacking confidence about leading or feeling unqualified to lead; being unassertive.
  7. Perfectionism: setting unrealistic expectations for yourself or others; needing things to be flawless.
  8. Procrastination: putting things off until later or the last minute.
  9. Short Game: failing to invest in the future and deciding important things without considering the long term.
  10. Workaholism: being addicted to work and struggling to switch it off or stop thinking about it.

While these are common derailers, there are many more. In fact, I’ve identified more than sixty derailers that inhibit leadership effectiveness.

What are your top leadership derailers? And what will you do about them?

See our new Leadership Derailers Assessment to find out—and then get to work on improving your leadership.

 

Reflection Questions

  • What do you struggle with as a leader?
  • What will you do about it, starting today?
  • Who will you ask for help?

This always works best when colleagues openly discuss it together. We all have derailers. We all have work to do. So get real. And get busy with the important work of intentional leadership development. Reach out if you think I may be able to help.

Gregg

 

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Postscript: Inspirations on Leadership Derailers

  • “Instead of learning from other people’s success, learn from their mistakes. Most of the people who fail share common reasons, whereas success can be attributed to various different kinds of reasons.” –Jack Ma, Chinese entrepreneur, investor, and philanthropist

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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 Power of Taking Full Responsibility for Your Life

Responsibility.

It’s a word we hear a lot. We take on more responsibilities as we go through life. Responsibility for the rent. Car payments. Mortgage. Deadlines. Getting the job done. These things can be daunting.

But there’s another aspect of responsibility that cuts the other way, that empowers us: taking responsibility for our lives.

And not just responsibility. Full responsibility.

 

What Does It Mean to Take Full Responsibility for Our Lives?

What does this mean? Carry out the logic and it leads to a sweeping conclusion:

Taking full responsibility for our lives means taking full responsibility for everything in our lives.

Carry out the logic still further and it leads to a stunning insight, one that’s capable of transforming our lives:

Taking full responsibility for our lives means taking full responsibility for everything in our lives, regardless of what has happened or why.

That means taking full responsibility for our thoughts, feelings, words, actions, circumstances, and impacts. It means taking full responsibility for our health, relationships, education, career, finances, choices, behaviors, and free time.

Our ability to accept responsibility for things depends on our sense of agency: our perceived ability to influence events and direct them toward the achievement of our goals.

 

Locus of Control

That brings us to what psychologists call “locus of control”: the extent to which we feel that we have control over the events of our lives. Are we the captains of our fate, steering the ship toward our horizon of choice, or are we drifters on a raft, being carrier by the current and winds randomly out to sea?

Drive and direction matrix from the book, LIFE Entrepreneurs, by Christopher Gergen and Gregg Vanourek

 

Researchers distinguish between an internal locus of control (when we believe that control over what happens resides within us) and an external locus of control (when we attribute success to luck, fate, or other outside influences). Note that locus of control occurs on a continuum; it’s not a one-or-the-other situation.

According to researchers, people with an internal locus of control tend to:

  • be healthier
  • report being happier
  • exhibit more independence
  • achieve greater success in the workplace

So far, we’ve seen that it means to take full responsibility for our lives. It sounds simple enough. But it’s quite difficult to do it consistently—and it’s exceedingly rare.

 

How to Know If You’re Not Taking Full Responsibility?

Most people bounce back and forth between taking responsibility for their lives and shirking that responsibility. How to know if we’re not taking responsibility?

When we’re avoiding responsibility, we’re tending toward the following:

  • blaming others
  • complaining about things
  • feeling hopeless
  • experiencing “learned helplessness” (when we stop trying to change things because we’ve become conditioned to believe that a bad situation is inescapable)
  • feeling powerless
  • drifting through life without traction on our deeper aims
  • settling for a less than ideal situation

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 Incredible Benefits of Taking Full Responsibility

Taking full responsibility for all aspects of our lives, regardless of what has happened or why, is one of the most important things we can do to improve the quality of our lives, relationships, and work outcomes. It comes with many benefits. Taking full responsibility can:

  • boost our confidence
  • provide us with a more resilient sense of calm which isn’t dependent on others
  • increase our decisiveness
  • improve our health
  • reduce our stress levels
  • lead to taking more action in life
  • help us achieve our goals
  • free us up to see the good in people and situations
  • help summon our courage
  • lead to better relationships
  • help us improve our follow-through
  • invoke our power to choose
  • dramatically improve our leadership
  • help us craft our life intentionally

 

What We Must Give Up When We Take Full Responsibility

Clearly, the benefits are extensive. But they come at a price. Taking full responsibility means giving up on several bad habits and guilty pleasures. For example:

It means giving up on complaining.

“What you’re supposed to do when you don’t like a thing is change it. If you can’t change it, change the way you think about it. Don’t complain.” -Maya Angelou

It means giving up on making excuses.

“He that is good for making excuses is seldom good for anything else.” -Benjamin Franklin

It means giving up on blaming others.

“An important decision I made was to resist playing the Blame Game. The day I realized that I am in charge of how I will approach problems in my life, that things will turn out better or worse because of me and nobody else, that was the day I knew I would be a happier and healthier person. And that was the day I knew I could truly build a life that matters.” -Steve Goodier

It means giving up on being a victim.

“Abandon the idea that you will forever be the victim of the things that have happened to you. Choose to be a victor.” -Seth Adam Smith

What to do instead? Instead of complaining, making excuses, blaming, or playing the victim, change your mindset toward one of agency and accountability. Instead of deflecting toward others (or toward bad luck), turn your gaze within and ask:

What is my role in this?

How have I contributed to this?

What will I do about it now?

Get curious about what happened and why, and what you might do differently in the future to make it better or avoid the same mistake.

 

What Taking Full Responsibility Doesn’t Mean

Taking full responsibility means holding ourselves totally accountable, but it doesn’t mean being a “Lone Ranger,” disconnected from others.

Even as we take full responsibility for our life, we can—and should—reach out to others for help. We can ask for their input, or for them to help hold us accountable.

For most people, strong social relationships are the most important contributor to enduring happiness. We’re wise to take full responsibility for our relationships too, instead of expecting others to know what we want or waiting for others to change.

Being accountable doesn’t mean being alone. It means being the captain of our lives, being a “life entrepreneur.”

And it ultimately means changing the trajectory of our lives toward more fulfillment and better outcomes.

“The luckiest people are those who learn early… that it’s essential to take charge of your own life. That doesn’t mean you don’t accept help, friendship, love, and leadership—if it’s good leadership—from others. But it does mean recognizing that ultimately you’re the one who’s responsible for you.” -John W. Gardner

 

Reflection Questions on Taking Responsibility for Your Life

  1. In what areas are you:
    • complaining?
    • making excuses?
    • blaming others?
    • being a victim?
  1. What will you do, starting today, to take back the initiative and take full responsibility for the situation?
  2. Are you taking full responsibility for everything in your life, regardless of what has happened or why?

 

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Postscript: Quotations on Taking Responsibility for Your Life

  • “Self-leadership means taking responsibility for our own lives.” -Andrew Bryant & Ana Kazan, from Self Leadership
  • “Character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.” -Joan Didion
  • “The degree to which you accept responsibility for everything in your life is precisely the degree of personal power you have to change or create anything in your life.” -Hal Elrod
  • “Personal responsibility is the foundational key that opens the door to freedom…. the moment you choose to accept personal responsibility for all your inner experiences independent of what appears to have caused them, the escape hatch automatically swings open, providing you with the opportunity for passing into the land of freedom. You become authentically empowered, and you discover there really is a calm at the center for the fiercest hurricane where you can reside. In fact, eventually you realize that you are that calm.” -H. Ronald Hulnick and Mary R. Hulnick, from Loyalty to Your Soul
  • “Hold yourself responsible for a higher standard than anyone else expects of you. Never excuse yourself.” -Henry Ward Beecher
  • “Don’t believe the world owes you a living. The world owes you nothing. It was here first.” -Robert J. Burdette, 1883
  • “A man can fail many times, but he isn’t a failure until he begins to blame somebody else.” -John Burroughs
  • “Unless a person takes charge of them, both work and free time are likely to be disappointing.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  • “Never tell your problems to anyone… 20 percent don’t care and the other 80 percent are glad you have them.” -Lou Holtz
  • “Don’t complain; just work harder.” -Randy Pausch
  • “See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.” -Eckhart Tolle, from The Power of Now
  • “I had to take complete ownership of what went wrong. That is what a leader does—even if it means getting fired. If anyone was to be blamed and fired for what happened, let it be me.” -Jocko Willink, from Extreme Ownership
  • “You are responsible for the energy that you create for yourself, and you’re responsible for the energy that you bring to others.”  -Oprah Winfrey

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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!

The Problem of Going It Alone

One of the silver linings of this ruthless pandemic has been what it has reminded us about our longing for relationship, for connection, for human touch. What was suddenly stolen was dearly missed and now cherished. We see the problem of going it alone.

Close connection with family and friends and a sense of belonging are the most important building blocks of a life well lived. Yet today we have forces driving us apart.

One is a culture of excessive individualism and egocentric living, a sense that life is all about us. It’s the trap of being self-absorbed and caught up in our own stuff, without focusing on something larger than ourselves. If we’re fortunate enough to live a comfortable life with our needs met, one danger is that we can “cocoon” into our big homes with big yards with more stuff than we need and wall ourselves off into social isolation.

Here we encounter the emptiness of egocentric living. By contrast, we can pursue the meaningfulness of relational commitment, of being there for others and letting them be there for us.

Burnout and Overwork

Another problem is our culture of burnout and overwork. In his wonderful book, How Will Your Measure Your Life?, written with his colleagues James Allworth and Karen Dillon before he passed away, Clayton Christensen wrote:

“…there is much more to life than your career…. In my experience, high-achievers focus a great deal on becoming the person they want to be at work–and far too little on the person they want to be at home. Investing our time and energy in raising wonderful children or deepening our love with our spouse often doesn’t return clear evidence of success for many years. What this leads to is over-investing in our careers, and under-investing in our families–starving one of the most important parts of our life.”

Happiness Is Social

There’s a mountain of research demonstrating the importance of relationships, belonging, and social connectedness to our happiness. Take the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a massive longitudinal study of hundreds of people for about 80 years now. Writing about the study in The Atlantic, Joshua Wolf Shenk reported, “The project is one of the longest-running—and probably the most exhaustive—longitudinal studies of mental and physical well-being in history,” including interviews, questionnaires, medical exams, and psychological tests.

The subjects continue to be studied to this day. They’re evaluated at least every two years by questionnaires, information from their doctors, and interviews. Researchers gathered information about their mental and physical health, career enjoyment, retirement experience, and marital quality.

When asked what he’s learned from the study, psychiatrist and professor George Vaillant (a psychiatrist who led the study for decades) wrote: “Warmth of relationships throughout life have the greatest positive impact on ‘life satisfaction.’… (We now have) “70 years of evidence that our relationships with other people… matter more than anything else in the world…. Happiness is love. Full stop.”

“All you need is love.”The Beatles

 

Sources of Happiness

In another study, researchers sought to identify the characteristics of the happiest 10 percent of people among us. What did they find? Wealth? Beauty? Fame? Fitness? No, the main distinguishing characteristic of the happiest 10 percent: the strength of their social relationships.

In their book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener write: “…like food and air, we seem to need social relationships to thrive.”

According to summary findings on happiness from Professor Sonja Lyubomirsky and other researchers she’s studied (from her book, The How of Happiness), the happiest people:

  • Devote a great amount of time to their family and friends, nurturing and enjoying those relationships
  • Are comfortable expressing gratitude for all they have
  • Are often the first to offer helping hands to co-workers and others
  • Practice optimism when imagining their futures
  • Savor life and live in the present moment
  • Exercise regularly
  • Are deeply committed to lifelong goals and ambitions (e.g., teaching children their values)
  • Show poise and strength when coping with challenges

(Note how many of those activities involve relationships.)

According to researchers who evaluated data from the World Values Survey, which surveyed people in more than 150 countries about their life satisfaction, the top factors that account for about three-fourths of reported well-being are:

  • social support
  • generosity
  • trust
  • freedom
  • income per capita
  • healthy life expectancy

(Note how many of these factors are social. The link between life satisfaction and social connection has held up very well across time and place, according to the World Happiness Report 2015.)

“Here’s the most fundamental finding of happiness economics: the factors that most determine our happiness are social, not material…. social connectedness is the most important of all the variables which contribute to a sense of wellbeing in life. And that is true at any age…. We are each other’s safety nets.”Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve

Isolation and Going It Alone

Alas, the flip side is also true. Isolation can become a downward spiral, fostering discontent and shame, leading to further isolation. It turns out that going it alone through hard times and transitions, though an instinct for many, is a recipe for more hardship.

“Isolation is fatal…. The burden of going it alone is heavy and limiting—and potentially dangerous…. In fact, social isolation can take up to seven years off of your life. Isolation contributes to heart disease and depression; it influences your immune system and leads to faster aging and advanced health problems.”Richard Leider and Alan Webber, Life Reimagined

Truth be told, staying connected to others can be hard at times. It doesn’t help that we have so much political division and distrust, with so many people dismissing or dehumanizing others who have different views. Our age of political contempt, partisan warfare, and take-no-prisoners tribalism is surely not helping.

Vulnerability and Connection

Many of us also struggle with vulnerability, with asking for help. We fear feeling uncomfortable and a potential loss of social status if we admit that our lives are not Instagram-perfect. So we resort to superficial conversations that feel safer, neglecting the deeper territory of openness and self-disclosure through meaningful dialogue.

“We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.”Brene Brown, researcher, speaker, and author

What’s needed, though, is more of what design thinkers call “radical collaboration,” which can be thought of as collaborating much more than you normally would—proactively seeking mentors, coaches, friends, peer groups, and people to learn from and ask questions.

The problem of going it alone in times of trouble or transition is that it doesn’t work very well. A better approach: reach out and connect. Share. Listen. Help, and accept help. You and your family, friends, and colleagues will be glad you did.

 

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.

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Postscript: Quotes on the Importance of Relationships and Not Going It Alone

  • “In everyone’s life, at some time, an inner fire goes out. It is then burst into flame by an encounter with another human being. We should all be thankful for those people who rekindle the inner spirit.” –Stephen R. Covey, author, executive, and speaker
  • “Belonging begins with safety…. this is a place and a relationship where you feel safe enough to be the real you.” –Jonathan Fields, How to Live a Good Life
  • “Going it alone in times of hardship is never a good idea.” –Jonathan Rauch, The Happiness Curve 
  • “Being in a state of in between means being in some state of loneliness. Being neither here nor there often feels like being nowhere. Which is why connecting with others is so central to getting through one of these times. Human beings like to share.” –Bruce Feiler, Life Is in the Transitions
  • “I came to understand that while many of us might default to measuring our lives by summary statistics, such as number of people presided over, number of awards, or dollars accumulated in a bank, and so on, the only metrics that will truly matter to my life are the individuals whom I have been able to help, one by one, to become better people.” –Clayton Christensen, How Will You Measure Your Life?
  • “Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you came across your identity: in the work of your hands, your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others.” –Boris Pasternak, Russian poet and novelist (Doctor Zhivago)

 

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!

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!

Are You Playing the Long Game?

These days it’s easy to fall into the trap of playing the short game. Our culture is geared toward it. With our devices, we’re developing the attention span of a gnat. We swipe and scroll. We get fidgety with a few seconds of down-time.

The power of the long game is astonishing, but the short game is alluring. We see it in many realms.

 

We see it in business.

Clayton Christensen noted, “If you study the root causes of business disasters, over and over you’ll find a predisposition toward endeavors that offer immediate gratification.”

 

We see it in startups.

Steve Blank notes that many startups incur what he calls “organizational debt”: “all the people/culture compromises made to ‘just get it done’ in the early stages of a startup.” Common examples: a lack of good onboarding and training, missing job descriptions, chaotic compensation, puny HR budgets, and more. While these compromises can help keep the cash burn rate down, they “can turn a growing company into a chaotic nightmare.”

 

We see it in our climate.

We’re making a harrowing gamble with our children’s future as we fail to address the gathering dangers of climate change.

 

We see it in our health.

Many of us are sitting longer, eating poorly, sleeping less, and pinging through life in a state of perpetual busyness or burnout.

 

We see it in our relationships.

Caught up in our careers, we lose touch with family and friends—something we’re likely to regret. Australian nurse Bronnie Ware, working in palliative care, found that two of the top regrets of people as they approached their death were: wishing they hadn’t worked so hard, and wishing they had stayed in touch with their friends.

 

We see it in parenting.

Years ago, a colleague of mine, also a father of young children, said a few words that changed me as a parent: “They’re only young once.”

 

We see it in our careers.

When we’re young and in school, we face pressures about what we’re going to do next, with expectations from parents and peers, and without much basis for making big decisions. Too often we make big decisions based on the pressures of the moment in ways that don’t stand the test of time. We follow the herd into that high-status profession. Or we choose solely based on the paycheck.

 

We see it in life.

One day there will be a reckoning for the choices we’ve made. Did we fall into the following short-game traps?

Conforming to what others expect.

Drifting through life without direction.

Staying in a job we don’t like.

Getting nowhere (or nowhere good) in a professional hamster wheel.

Deferring our dreams because it’s “not the right time.”

Settling forgood enough.”

Continuing to climb even though we’re on the wrong ladder.

 

The idea of playing the long game isn’t new.

Thousands of years ago, Aristotle advised, “Plan with your whole life in mind.”

Now more than ever we need to reorient our life and work to the long game.

 

Questions for Reflection

  • In what areas—business, health, relationships, parenting, careers, life—are you playing the short game?
  • What ideas do you have to start making changes?
  • Who can you connect with for help and accountability?

 

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!

Leadership and Psychological Safety in Teams

The problems in far too many organizations today are legion:

  • Unproductive, boring meetings
  • Astonishing amounts of wasted time
  • Avoidance of sensitive issues
  • Lack of full engagement
  • Reluctance to provide candid, constructive feedback
  • Political games and hidden agendas

Sound familiar?

The effects are far-reaching, from low quality work to employee turnover. According to a Corporate Executive Board study: “Nearly half of all executive teams fail to receive negative news that is material to firm performance in a timely manner because employees are afraid of being tainted by the bad news,” and only “19% of executive teams are always promptly informed of bad news that is material to firm performance.”

“So many times, I’ve heard people say, ‘I knew our strategy wasn’t working, but no one was willing to tell our CEO. No one wanted to lose their job.” –Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

 

Avoiding Important Conversations

Andrew Kakabadse found that a very high percentage of top management team members in countries around the world report that there are issues not discussed because they are too sensitive, as shown below.

Lack of Dialogue among Top Management Team about Sensitive Issues (% of top management team members reporting that there are issues that should be aired but are not discussed because they’re too sensitive)

Source: Andrew Kakabadse, The Success Formula: How Smart Leaders Deliver Outstanding Value (Bloomsbury, 2015).

A related problem is groupthink—when people feel pressure to conform to an artificial consensus instead of pressure-testing ideas thoroughly without fear or favor.

What’s to be done?

 

Psychological Safety

What’s needed—desperately in some cases—is what Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson and others call psychological safety. It’s a shared sense that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. As with floating a new idea for improving performance, raising a concern, or admitting a mistake.

Timothy R. Clark notes that psychological safety exists when people feel included and safe to learn, contribute, and challenge the status quo—“all without fear of being embarrassed, marginalized, or punished.”

Easier said than done.

Our neurological wiring helps explain why psychological safety is fragile: our brains process a raised voice or a cutting comment as a threat, triggering certain parts of the brain with a fight-or-flight response and shutting down the parts responsible for advanced reasoning and creativity. We become unable to think clearly just when we need it most.

Edmondson found that “Low levels of psychological safety can create a culture of silence… in which speaking up is belittled and warnings go unheeded.”

She notes that speaking up is only the beginning. If a manager responds negatively when someone raises a concern, it reduces or eliminates psychological safety.

She also notes that “psychologically safe workplaces have a powerful advantage in competitive industries.” That’s because they benefit from the feedback loops when customer service agents raise concerns with their managers or when line workers mention production problems to their supervisors, thereby identifying opportunities for improvement. In too many organizations, people are afraid to speak up, and so they don’t share their ideas.

 

The Importance of Trust—And Conflict

To create psychological safety we must build trust. Stephen M. R. Covey has noted that with high trust in organizations, speed increases and costs decrease.

Enter the work of Patrick Lencioni. He noted the value of conflict in organizations (productive, not destructive, conflict). Most people view conflict as something to avoid, because it’s awkward and uncomfortable.

Healthy teams use conflict productively, for example, to work through a difficult problem or understand the root cause of a breakdown. Lencioni observes that the best leaders “mine for conflict,” almost like it’s gold.

“Weak leaders want agreement. Strong leaders want the truth.” -Susan Scott in Fierce Conversations

Most teams run from conflict like it’s the plague. The first “dysfunction of a team” noted by Lencioni is an absence of trust. When people aren’t comfortable being vulnerable in the group (due to a lack of psychological safety), it’s impossible to build a foundation of trust. That’s because people are not open about their mistakes, weaknesses, and needs for help.

This tees up the second dysfunction: fear of conflict. Without trust, team members can’t engage in an unfiltered and vigorous debate, instead relying on veiled discussions and guarded comments that don’t get anywhere near the core issues.

“Trust is the foundation of real teamwork…. Great teams do not hold back with one another. They are unafraid to air their dirty laundry. They admit their mistakes, their weaknesses, and their concerns without fear of reprisal…. The most important action that a leader must take to encourage the building of trust on a team is to demonstrate vulnerability first.” -Patrick Lencioni

By showing vulnerability, leaders model the way and open a space where others feel comfortable doing the same.

The results of disciplined attention to these matters over time can be extraordinary. With high levels of psychological safety, fueled by vulnerability and trust, people rise to new heights of performance and engagement.

Psychological safety, while fragile and rare, is precious and powerful. The best leaders cultivate it carefully.

 

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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!

How to Give Effective Feedback—A Communication Superpower

Giving effective feedback is a powerful skill. When done well, it can be a big performance booster. When done poorly, a disaster bringing fear, discomfort, and resentment.

At its best, feedback is a great gift that can build trust and respect. At its worst, a spiral to anguish and despair. So tread carefully.

According to decades of research from Dr. John Hattie (2008), feedback is among the most powerful influences on levels of achievement.*

“We all need people who will give us feedback. That’s how we improve.”Bill Gates

Unfortunately, few people have learned how to give effective feedback or take the time to do it well, in part because of the fear associated with hurting feelings or damaging a relationship.

Through feedback you can provide information about how someone is doing on the way to reaching a goal. But it can also derail their learning, motivation, and performance if not handled well.

 

Feedback Is Not Advice

Note that feedback is not advice: “You need more examples in your report” is an example of advice, not feedback. Here are examples of feedback:

  • (Golf coach to a golfer): “Each time you swung and missed, you raised your head as you swung so you didn’t really have your eye on the ball. On the one you hit hard, you kept your head down and saw the ball.”
  • (Reader to a writer): “The first few paragraphs kept my full attention. The scene painted was vivid and interesting. But then the dialogue became hard to follow. As a reader, I was confused about who was talking, and the sequence was puzzling, so I became less engaged.” (Source: Grant Wiggins.)*

 

Best Practices for Giving Feedback

Here are some best practices for giving feedback:*

  1. Private Setting: The place where you give feedback should be private and neutral. Make the recipient as comfortable as possible, and avoid whenever possible public scrutiny that will take focus off the issue at hand. In-person feedback is much better than written, because so many important nuances get lost in emails and text.
  2. Mindset: Check your mindset to ensure that you come to the feedback session with a mindset of service, kindness, and openness, and that you’re presuming the best about the person (e.g., that they’re doing the best they can, or there may be obstacles that you don’t know about). Begin with a mindset of wanting the person to thrive and excel while feeling trusted and supported.
  3. Positive Experience: Make it a positive experience for the recipient. The purpose of feedback is to help the person improve. Note that feedback should contain positive and negative information about how their actions are affecting their progress toward goals. Simple praise is not enough. Strive for a high ratio of positive to negative observations to ensure the response is not dejection and thus counterproductive. Be kind and considerate. Developing your emotional intelligence is essential.
  4. Goal-Referenced: Indicate whether the person is on track toward goals or in need of a change. If the latter, brainstorm with them ways to get back on track.
  5. Specific and Actionable: Help the recipient answer the question, “What specifically should I do more or less of next time?” (Thus, “You did that incorrectly” or “Good job” do not cut it.) The Center for Creative Leadership points to the “SBI method”:
    • Situation: Describe the situation.
    • Behavior: Describe the actual, observed behavior being discussed. Stick to the facts and avoid opinions and judgments.
    • Impact: Describe the results of the behavior.
  6. User-Friendly: Feedback must be accepted by the recipient to be helpful. View it from his/her perspective and present it clearly. Note the most important elements (not a long list of items without priorities).
  7. Timely and Ongoing: The sooner the better, so the actions are fresh. Too many managers save feedback for performance reviews, which is way too late. Feedback should be frequent and ongoing.

“A global study of over 1,000 organizations in more than 150 countries found that more than one-third of all employees had to wait more than three months to get feedback from their manager; nearly two-thirds wish they received more feedback from their colleagues.” James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge

  1. Curious and Open: Invite their perspective and input. Search for mutual agreement and be open to their ideas. Ask them what ideas they have for moving forward. Ensure that they maintain a sense of accomplishment, competence, and agency.
  2. Humble: Research has shown that people aren’t good raters of other people’s performance (or their own). We vastly overestimate our ability to do this well. (It’s called the “idiosyncratic rater effect.”) We assume we are clear and correct in our observations and judgments, but this is often much less true than we think.

 

Why Feedback Gets Derailed

To be effective at giving feedback, we must step back and understand why it is so difficult and dangerous. Think back to when you received feedback from a teacher in front of class, or from an intense and critical boss. Feedback gets derailed when:

  • It focuses on the person and not the actions
  • It comes across as one-sided, with the giver of feedback assuming they are right, they have all the relevant information, or they alone have the key to the only way forward
  • It feels like an attack, not a gesture of solidarity and mutual commitment to improvement

 

Our Brains and Feedback

When dealing with feedback, we’re not just in the land of communication and leadership but also of psychology and neuroscience. Our brains are brilliant at discounting or rejecting feedback. Our egos get engaged. We get defensive. Or we deflect attention away from our flaws and mistakes. We focus on what we want to hear and block out what we don’t.

“When we give feedback, we notice that the receiver isn’t good at receiving it. When we receive feedback, we notice that the giver isn’t good at giving it.” -Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen in Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well 

We discredit or attack the one giving feedback, judging them extra harshly to protect our precious and wounded ego. Much of this is unconscious (an automatic triggering of our “fight or flight” response in sympathetic nervous system), so even harder for us to avoid (without strong self-awareness, emotional intelligence, and mindfulness practices).

The activation of this part of our brain reduces our ability to take in new information and impairs our learning, thereby defeating the very purpose of feedback. Professor Richard Boyatzis summarizes research noting that critical feedback engages strong negative emotion, which “inhibits access to existing neural circuits and invokes cognitive, emotional, and perceptual impairment.”*

The key is avoiding these negative triggers and taking care to engage more productive parts of the brain: the parasympathetic nervous system, associated with “a sense of well-being, better immune system functioning, and cognitive, emotional, and perceptual openness.” (Boyatzis)*

The way to do this is to notice what people did well, encourage them to reflect on and continue it, and add nuances or ideas to the understanding of the drivers of positive performance. Note what worked and ask the person what they were thinking or doing at the time. As Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall say in “The Feedback Fallacy” in Harvard Business Review, “replay each small moment of excellence to your team.”

“As a leader, part of your job is to consistently let people know what they are doing well to reinforce those positive behaviors and to build emotional capital. Positive feedback makes work more enjoyable and more productive.”Susan Scott, Fierce Conversations

The other problem is that some people walk around giving unsolicited advice. The assumption is that they’re right, others are wrong, others need correcting, and the act of doling out advice is like a gift from above. More often, though, it trounces on people’s feelings and makes things worse. People don’t want to be fixed. They want to feel supported and valued as they go through their own journey, including wins, losses, and learnings. We all want to be the heroes of our own story.

 

Receiving Feedback

Feedback is a two-way street. It must also be received well. That requires an ability to listen well: focusing intently on what the other person is saying (not using the time while they’re speaking to think through your counterpoints) and being open to their point of view (not getting defensive). When listening well, we ask questions, share our feelings, and summarize points while checking for accuracy and understanding. The conversation builds naturally as we go to new places together.

“Really pay attention to negative feedback and solicit it, particularly from friends. … Hardly anyone does that, and it’s incredibly helpful… Constantly seek criticism. A well thought out critique of whatever you’re doing is as valuable as gold.” -Elon Musk

“On the Leadership Practices Inventory… the statement on which leaders consistently report engaging in least frequently is ‘asks for feedback on how my actions affect other people’s performance.’ Openness to feedback, especially negative feedback, is characteristic of the best learners.”James Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge

Giving and receiving feedback well is a communication superpower. Use it wisely.

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*Sources

  • Leo Babauta, “How to Give Kind Criticism, And Avoid Being Critical,” Zen Habits, undated
  • Ken Blanchard Companies, “Take the Fear Out of Feedback,” Perspectives, 2016
  • Richard Boyatzis, “Neuroscience and Leadership: The Promise of Insights,” Ivey Business Journal, January / February 2011
  • Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, “The Feedback Fallacy,” Harvard Business Review, March 2019
  • Center for Creative Leadership, “Immediately Improve Your Talent Development with the SBI Feedback Model,” Leading Effectively articles, undated
  • John Hattie, Visible Learning: A Synthesis of Over 800 Meta-Analyses Relating to Achievement (Routledge, 2008)
  • Robert Nash and Naomi Winstone, “Why Even the Best Feedback Can Bring Out the Worst in Us,” BBC, March 8, 2017
  • Grant Wiggins, “Seven Keys to Effective Feedback,” ASCD: Educational Leadership, September 2012

 

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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 Power of Empathy in Leadership

These days, we ask much of our leaders. Organizations and governments are under great pressures to perform, and these days leaders are responsible for crisis management during a pandemic with its attendant economic destruction and social and emotional anxiety.

More and more we are realizing that empathy is a powerful aspect of leading well.

Empathy is the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing from their frame of reference (i.e., the capacity to place oneself in another person’s position).

 

Different Types of Empathy

Researchers have identified several types of empathy:

  • Cognitive empathy is the capacity to understand someone’s mental state.
  • Emotional empathy is the capacity to respond with an appropriate emotion to another’s mental states, including a concern for others when they are suffering.
  • Somatic empathy is a physical reaction in our nervous system that entails physically feeling someone else’s pain (e.g., getting a sense of physical pain when you see someone else get hurt).

According to the research, when managers exhibit the most empathy toward their team, they are viewed as better performers. What’s more, when we exhibit empathy as leaders, we build trust with others because they see that we are paying attention to them and recognizing their issues and concerns.

When we empathize, we relate to and connect with people, and that contributes toward building a sense of teamwork and camaraderie.

According to Roman Krznaric in Empathy: Why It Matters and How to Get It, empathy “is not just about seeing things from another’s perspective. It’s the cornerstone of smart leadership. The real competitive advantage of the human worker will be their capacity to create relationships….”

 

Empathy and Leadership

Great leaders focus not just on vision and execution but also on building healthy and close relationships with people they work with.

Empathy shows up in several modern leadership frameworks. For example, it is one of the ten characteristics of a servant leader and one of the components of emotional intelligence (and its social awareness aspect).

In our “triple crown leadership” model for how to build excellent, ethical, and enduring organizations, it shows up in our “head and heart” practice, with leaders hiring, developing, and rewarding people not just for “head” skills like knowledge and skills but also for “heart” factors, including empathy.

What’s more, we can view leadership as a quest (e.g., to achieve a higher purpose). But as entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn notes, “As a leader, you should always start with where people are before you try to take them where you want them to go.”

Recently, we’ve seen troubling examples of narcissism in leaders, including an excessive need for admiration as well as a disregard for others’ feelings, interests, or safety.

That’s a real shame, because it keeps the focus on the leader as opposed to the larger purpose and the people in the organization and those they serve.

The best leaders leverage empathy to understand their customers much more deeply and thus lead their teams in creating products and services that solve real problems—and in seeing opportunities for innovation that others miss.

Empathy is an essential aspect of effective leadership and a powerful human trait that binds us together in the ups and downs of life and work.

 

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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 Most Important Questions for Leaders

Leading others well can be a great challenge. It requires courage, judgment, wisdom, emotional intelligence, integrity, and much more. Leadership excellence comes with experience, but it begins with intentionality and commitment.
 
Here are the most important (four) questions to help ground your leadership in a powerful foundation, whether you are a new leader learning the ropes or a seasoned leader looking to upgrade or renew.

 
1. Why are you leading? 

Is it for prestige? The title? Money? Power? Perquisites? Is it to prove something, or impress others? In truth, several of these may be drivers for you, but the key issue is whether you have found a deeper why. Being a leader does not require being a saint absent normal human influences and motivations, but leading well requires clarity of purpose and a motivation beyond the self. Great leadership has been described as motivating people to accomplish great things together. In our Triple Crown Leadership book, we address the kind of leadership that can build an organization that is excellent, ethical, and enduring—with exceptional, positive, and sustainable impacts.
 
Have you matured and evolved such that you are able to rise beyond your ego and focus on the bigger picture? Followers will recognize selfish motives, especially if they become dominant, and such motives can make your leadership toxic if left unchecked. But followers will respond positively if they see a leader committed to a worthy higher purpose and aspirational vision.

 
2. Who are you serving? 

As Robert Greenleaf noted, the best leaders serve. With his “servant leadership” framework, he challenged traditional thinking about leadership as a top-down phenomenon. Greenleaf wrote, “The servant-leader is servant first. It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions.”
 
People sense that call to serve. They respect and admire it, and willingly follow. Greenleaf even developed a conceptual “test” we can use for determining whether someone is a servant leader: “The best test is: do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?”
 
At best, leaders serve their followers, and the organization serves all of its stakeholders: customers, employees, vendors and partners, the community, and its owners. The days of any organization serving only shareholders, often at the expense of other stakeholders, are numbered.

 
3. Are you upholding your values? 

Your values are the things that are most important to you. Think about what you believe and stand for, and your convictions about what is most important in life. While many organizations have statements of their values, many people don’t take the time to discover their own values. There is great power in making your values explicit and sharing them with others—and in demonstrating them through your choices and behaviors. Values matter because they guide your behavior in congruence with your authentic self and deepest convictions. Many people run into trouble when they behave in ways that conflict with their values.
 
Great leaders know their own values and collaboratively elicit a set of shared values to guide the behavior and decisions of people in the organization. They key is not having values. The key is upholding them and infusing them in the organization so they are actualized.

 
“You cannot deliver value unless you anchor the company’s values. Values make an unsinkable ship.” Indra Nooyi, former Chair and CEO, PepsiCo

 
4. What are you doing to develop yourself and others? 

Learning to lead well is a lifelong endeavor, and the best leaders are incredibly intentional about developing their own leadership through experience, stretch assignments, challenges, crises, active solicitation of feedback, coaching, mentoring, training, courses, reading, peer groups, self-reflection, and more.
 
The best leaders also focus on developing others. According to Jim Kouzes and Barry Posner in The Leadership Challenge, “Leaders develop in others the competence, as well as the confidence, to act and to excel.” They go on to say, “The most lasting test of your leadership effectiveness is the extent to which you bring forth and develop the leadership abilities in others, not just in yourself.”
 
Unfortunately, most organizations do not invest nearly enough in effective training and development (or on vetting people during hiring). According to a Hewitt Associates study of 700 senior leaders, most organizations hold their executives and managers accountable for achieving business results, but only 10% hold executives accountable for developing their direct reports, and only 5% indicate that their managers consistently demonstrate the ability to develop employees. In their book, The Talent MastersRam Charan and Bill Conaty write, “If businesses managed their money as carelessly as they manage their people, most would be bankrupt. The great majority of companies that control their finances don’t have any comparable processes for developing leaders or even pinpointing which ones to develop.”
 
Organizations that are great at learning and development improve systematically over time in ways that allow them to excel and outperform others, leveraging the power of compounding and the engagement and motivation that come from learning, development, and growth.

 

Four Key Questions for Leaders

So, four key questions for leaders:
1. Why are you leading?
2. Who are you serving?
3. Are you upholding your values?
4. What are you doing to develop yourself and others?
 
How do you answer these questions, and which questions need better answers?

 

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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!