The Downward Spiral of Tough Love

I had lunch last week with a friend and colleague who was telling me about a leader in her organization who subscribes to the “tough love” school of leadership. That for her teams to perform she has to be brutally honest about where they are screwing up.

Come on people! It doesn’t work for parents, teachers, spouses… so why do we think that tough love is a viable approach to leadership?

Now I get this woman’s position: she is frustrated because her teams are under-performing. The rest of the organization is counting on them… they are highly visible, and the face of the organization. If I were in her shoes, I’d feel gutted too. And probably annoyed and a bit embarrassed.

So to get the best from her teams, she motivates them by telling them how much they suck. Surprisingly, there is no substantial shift in results from her team. Then what does she do? More tough love. And what does she get? More mediocre results. It’s a downward spiral into blame, judgement and de-motivation.

Einstein was on to something: “Insanity is doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results”. This applies more than ever to leadership.

While her teams may be faltering… the common denominator in all of this is her leadership. To change a system, starts with changing self.

When I’ve worked with leaders like this before, a common worry I hear is that people don’t want to shift their style in a way that is inauthentic. But the truth around authenticity is that sometimes people are authentically as*holes – and then they wonder why team performance suffers. Authentic leadership, on the other hand, is about showing up as who you are AND being willing to work with the impact you’re having on those around you. Instead of saying “this is me, deal with it,” authentic leaders say “how can I play to my strengths and adapt my style to get the best from my people?”

Because really, results can’t happen without people. To get the most from your team, bring intention to your leadership this week. Try a few new things:

Be a Leader:

  • Start by taking 100% accountability: if your team isn’t getting the results you want, choose accountability rather than blame. What do you need to shift in your leadership to get better results from your people?
  • Facilitate success. Rather than de-motivate through tough love, try giving feedback and coaching. One of the biggest and most important roles a leader plays is helping their people succeed.
  • Listen with curiosity and care. When results are faltering, find out why. Start first with asking questions and listening rather than directing and declaring. Facilitate conversations where learning happens.

Finding the Awesome

Lately I’ve been in a bit of a tailspin wanting to get some clarity over what my *big* future looks like. I’ve been so intent on figuring out the destination that I’ve neglected the journey along the way. I don’t know about you, but when I get in this mindset, I start to think about all the things that are going wrong and holding me back rather than pausing to appreciate “the awesome” of what’s immediate and in front of me.

So often I see this problem-focused mentality with leaders too. With a mandate of: fix things… improve… do better… be better… do more… it’s no wonder many leaders look first for problems, rather than look for what’s working, or even what’s… awesome.

Shifting from problem-focused to awesome-focused is hard. Many of you were hired to fix things. And, absolutely keep fixing… I’m just suggesting that the fixin’ might get easier, and the road less bumpy, if you look also for the good.

This week, try these few things (at home or at work):

  • Pause to celebrate the little things… This means slowing down enough to notice.
  • Look for the awesome in your colleagues and employees… (or your spouse!)…. And tell them. Not just the “you’re awesome” comment… but really, truly telling them what they’ve done that makes them awesome, and the impact it’s had on you, the team and on results.
  • Notice what makes you smile.

Emotions are contagious. Take this to heart.

When I need a little reminder to lighten my mindset, I’ll pick up Neil Pasricha’s The Book of Awesome and read a few pages. Pasricha, a self-proclaimed “regular guy,” started a website called 1000awesomethings.com as a way to escape the doldrums of everyday life.  It’s a reminder that there is joy in noticing the little awesome things.

e-musings awesome list for May 21 and 22:

  • Waking up while the house is still quiet and sneaking in a productive hour of work. It’s not often that this happens (me waking up early, and a quiet house! I’ll take it!)
  • The morning crib-chatter of my 17-month-old. This sound melts my heart. I have no idea what he’s saying, but it sure sounds important and interesting!
  • Listening to my dog have puppy dreams. If you have a dog, you know this sound. I laugh every time I hear it… It just doesn’t get tired.
  • Tiny glimpses of sunshine on an otherwise cloudy day. I’m in Vancouver. I’ll take what I can get!
  • Cows lying down. Saw this the other day, and I couldn’t help but laugh. Cows need rest too.

What’s awesome in your life today?

Stop the Circumstantial Drift: Lead with Purpose

Many leaders float through life, coming and going with the tides of circumstance. Time gets away on them, and soon they realize they aren’t in a role that inspires them, and their career has been based on logical and comfortable progression rather than intentional drive and passion. These leaders lead from a place of unconsciousness; having a wishy-washy impact on results and on the people they’re leading. This is leading without purpose.

Sometimes financial need dictates our direction. Other times convenience stands in our way. And more often than not… even when we choose to plead ignorance… we get in our own way of really, truly declaring and going after our dreams.

It takes courage to take a stand for what you want, and sometimes it’s just easier to ride the current rather than dig in and paddle. I know. I’ve been there, and will probably be there again… and again.

So rather than fall prey to circumstantial drift, how about giving yourself some good anchoring? Sit back, take a time-out-of-time and reflect on these questions:

  • What gets you excited in life and in work?
  • What untapped potential have you been shying away from?
  • As a leader, what do you want people to be saying about your character 5 years from now, 10 years from now?
  • What’s keeping you where you are?
  • What risks are you willing to take to get what you want and be even happier than you are now?
  • What first step are you willing to take tomorrow to move you closer to your dreams?

A vision is an anchor point. A place from which directed action occurs. It’s an internal compass – helping to guide decisions and ideas. It gives purpose and meaning to our work and leadership.

My litmus test for a vision (personal or corporate) is whether or not you can answer positively to these three questions (The 3 Cs):

  • Is it clear? Can you say, without a doubt, where you’re heading?
  • Is it concise? Can you remember it? Does it make sense?
  • Is it compelling? Does it guide your decisions and actions? Does it “grab” you and inspire you?

While these questions may seem a tad fluff, I can tell you that the clearer you are in the difference you want to make the more likely you are to make it. And from a leadership perspective, when you lead with intention, courage and clarity, people are more likely to want to be around you.

Bring some discipline of thought and passion to your own leadership. I dare you to lead with purpose… You may be surprised at what you come up with.

Stress Response-Ability: Beyond Fight-or-Flight

About eight years ago my life went through a bit of an upheaval. I was in the middle of a demanding Masters program, I was working in a job that really wasn’t fulfilling, I was in a relationship that had an uncertain future, and I was in that “phase” of life where I was questioning everything.

My stress was high and my resilience was low. Let me tell you, it was not a winning combo.  Despite my type-A, success-at-all-cost mentality, my body shut down. Stress was oozing from any available outlet. Meanwhile, my b*tch-of-an-inner-critic was saying: “get it together,” “you’re stronger than this,” “successful people don’t break down!” (Doesn’t she just say all the right things?)

With so many changes (real and potential) going on, my mental and emotional capacity was tapped out. I was at my max. And, what I’ve realized is that I’m not alone. Stress isn’t something we casually talk about… especially as a leader. It has a stigma, and can be seen as a sign of weakness or vulnerability. Though I can tell you, I’m stronger now for having lived through and experienced that low point.

The truth is, stress is real and it’s everywhere – at work, at home, between work and home… With our current world, some say we might even have a stress epidemic on our hands: leaving people with an out-of-control feeling more often than not. But what we do have influence and control over is growing our capacity and resilience to deal with it.

Physiologically, we are wired to respond to threats with our automatic stress reaction of “fight, flight or freeze” – a response that is very useful in predator-prey situation, not so useful in a corporate office.

In Full Catastrophe Living, Jon Kabat-Zinn, a world-renowned expert and teacher on mindfulness-based stress reduction, says that rather than falling victim to our stress reaction, we can develop adaptive strategies for coping: “you do not have to go the route of fight-or-flight reaction nor the route of helplessness every time you are stressed. You can actually choose not to.” Simply by bringing in mindfulness, or moment-to-moment awareness to what happens to us when we are stressed we reduce the strong-hold that our stress reaction can have on us.

When we’re in the grip of stress, we’re not at our best. And as a leader, when you’re not at your best, your team can suffer.

So what can you do? Start with simply noticing.

  • What is it that triggers a stress reaction in you?
  • What is your “typical” full-out stress reaction?
  • Can you pay attention to the subtle cues that are the start of the downward spiral of stress?
  • What can you do to re-calibrate and re-energize?

When I get that antsy, anxious flutter in my tummy, I know it’s time to hit the woods on my bike and get grounded. It fills up my tank emotionally, physically and mentally, and gives me the re-fresh I need to face the challenges that are part of life and leadership.

What are your stories around stress? What’s your re-fresh routine? Do you have one?

Don’t Be Blinded: Seeing Opportunity in Blind Spots

It might be the fact that Mary jumps in to finish peoples’ sentences, or John has an incessant need to be right… Maybe David lacks follow-through or Sarah’s cutthroat mentality leaves her employees wounded. Blind spots. We all have them – those personality quirks (or full-on flaws) that are obvious to everyone but us. And, the truth is, when we discover them, they can be… well, blinding. It takes vulnerability to uncover them and courage to point them out to others.

In Fearless Leadership, Loretta Malandro says “most successful leaders are unaware of two things: (1) the impact of their blind spots on others and (2) the degree to which others work around them and avoid confronting the real issues.” Organizational potential gets strangled because of these blind spots.

And though the interpersonal outcomes of a leader’s blind spot can be weighty, the thing to remember is these behaviors are usually sub-conscious, resulting in unintended impacts. Where leaders do get into trouble is in:

  • Not getting curious about their blind spots
  • Ignoring them altogether
  • Thinking they are immune, and have none
  • Immediately dismissing feedback that highlights a potential blind spot.

Let’s get real… a blind spot isn’t a blind spot anymore if you know about it already but choose to ignore it… That’s just leadership carelessness. Even if the feedback shocks you beyond belief, take it as a cue to pause, take a deep breath, and look for the part that is true – even if it’s only 2%. The choice is yours. Once uncovered, a blind spot is information that can help you up your game – you can wallow in self-pity, or look for the opportunity (easier said than done, I know!). Just know you’re not alone. We all have them. And, if you think you don’t have any… think again. There’s your blind spot.

Some common leadership blind spots or pitfalls that I’ve come across (caveat: more often than not, these are not conscious, intended behaviors, but rather unconscious, unproductive habits):

  • Needing to be right: When you need to be right, someone needs to be wrong. This winner-loser mindset really is a no-win game.
  • Thinking you have all the answers: Being the go-to answer-guy is seductive, but the unintended impact of this blind spot is stifling others growth.
  • Quick to say No: Saying “No Way” or bringing a negative mindset to everything instead of exploring possibilities is a sure fire way of getting people to work around you. Let’s face it; no one likes a constant Debbie-Downer.
  • Not really listening: While you might be in the same room as someone, your mind wanders to other places or you re-direct the conversation back your way (a move I call the “Back To Me” (BTM)). The unintended impact? Others feel insignificant. (Read Mobilize Strategies great post on Listening).
  • Having an inflated sense of self: Leading from a place of ego leaves little to no room for learning. The impacts of this grandiose sense of self are that people may shut down and stop collaborating with you. Ego can break a team.
  • Being unaware of your impact: The mother-of-all blind spots, you’re either too “busy” to notice, unable to read others, or just don’t care how you’re impacting your colleagues. This blind spot leaves others thinking you’re cavalier and insensitive. Don’t be surprised if people start avoiding you.

If any of these strike a nerve or get you thinking… it may be time to explore what blind spots might be getting in your way.

e-musings leadership tips on uncovering blind spots:

  • Seek feedback often – the good, the bad and the ugly
  • When you learn about a blind spot, slow down, get curious and find the grain (or boulder!) of truth in it
  • If you notice a potential blind spot in a colleague, help to enable their success by:
    • Asking if they are open to hearing some feedback
    • Being as specific as you can – what behavior do you notice and what is the impact (on the team, on results, etc…)
    • Getting curious and helping them process the information

Any comments or stories to share? Have you ever been blinded by a blind spot? How did you work through it?