Oops, I Was Thinking Out Loud – Part II

A while back, I wrote the following story one of my clients shared about his experience with the unintended consequences of thinking out loud. 

I was sitting in my office with my VP of Operations. I was thinking aloud, wondering what we needed to do next to get to our growth goals. I was going on and on about my frustrations and concerns. The next day, he returned to my office and asked if I was planning to sell the company. He apparently had gone home and thought about what I had said all night.”

Recently, one of my clients shared a different thinking-out-loud story about the ripple effects.

My client was walking the floor of her office, and to engage with the team, she sat down with a couple of team members and shared her observations about their current process of servicing customers. Her intent was to learn their perspective and see if anyone had ideas to streamline the process. Instead, she heard from the direct manager of these team members the next day that they needed to change the process because of their conversation with “the boss” the previous day! 

You may be thinking (silently?), so are you saying I want to be aware of what I am saying all the time? Yikes!!

My sense is the answer is yes. When we think out loud, sometimes we create expectations, alarm, or even actions we did not intend. 

In my own experience, when I have the presence to say, ” I would like to hear your perspective, may I think out loud for a moment?” that frames the conversation. And then, I remind myself to craft the wrap-up so that my listener doesn’t take action based on our think-out-loud conversation unless I want them to. And sometimes, this pausing reminds me that in this circumstance, it is best to ‘zip it.’ 

The Wisdom Years

Coaching CEOs, Presidents, and C-Suite executives for the last 20+ years has taught me a lot about what matters to leaders. While I’ve heard it said a variety of ways, it turns out that what matters to leaders is the desire to impact and make a difference, and this desire is there whether the leader is 25 or 95.

This need to make a difference seems to accelerate when we enter the last third of our lives, the so-called “wisdom years.” We often hear that the benefit of age is “wisdom,” the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment; the quality of being wise.

I am fortunate to have advisors and mentors of all ages, and in my experience, wisdom is not the sole purview of age. 

Indeed, experience counts; if I’ve done something before, it’s familiar the second time. I am likely to do it faster and better, and I may be able to teach you how to do it faster and better. 

On the other hand, knowledge and good judgment are qualities possessed by people of all ages. And here is where the caution comes in. While I may have more experience than someone younger, do I have more knowledge and better judgment? My sense is the answer to this question is situational. 

Perhaps the recognition that time is running out drives many of us to want to impart our wisdom. Yet, if we stop and pause for a moment, we know that regardless of how much I think I know and can help, Socrotes’ teachings always apply. 

I wonder if true wisdom lies in knowing when to offer what we perceive as wisdom and when to wait to be asked. 

Good Intentions

One of the key things we learn as coaches is the Socratic Method. Stay in a questioning mode and let people come to their own answers.

Most humans want to make a difference and have an impact on others. Sometimes when we want to be in service, it is tempting to tell others what they need to do. And, yet, the impact of giving advice can often have the exact opposite result.

The thing is, we all hear through our own filter. And sometimes, what we intend and what is heard are often not the same.

I have learned, and continue to learn, the hidden benefit of questioning, i.e., our filter becomes visible.

Telling is passive; I can choose to take it in or not; I can react or not.

On the other hand, when I am asked a question, the engagement is active. I am a participant, and I have the opportunity to pause and consider rather than react and respond.

No surprise that Socrates had the influence he did as a man of few words.

Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit

Reprising my shameless self-promotion in case you missed it. In October, I was a guest on the Northern Trust Advisors Podcast, and I just learned that this podcast made their top ten for 2021. So exciting! Here’s a link if you want to listen to a 1.5-minute excerpt. 

Rufus Miles, an American government administrator in the 20th century, is the originator and namesake of the aphorism “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”  As with most great quotes, it is as relevant today as it was then.

This message was driven home to me when I spent an evening with nine women who began our careers in the ’70s and ’80s. All of us were at the gathering at the invitation of one of the people present, i.e., we all knew at least one person and none of us knew everyone. We talked about many things and then serendipitously began to share stories about challenges early in our careers. In the spirit of full disclosure, the stories mostly were about challenges of being young women faced with inappropriate situations in male-dominated companies.

A few days later, I talked with a male colleague, a longtime friend, and mentor. I told him about our shared history conversation and the direction it took. After telling him a few of the stories, he shared his own stories from the other side. Such as when he was in a leadership position and falsely accused, offered sexual favors, etc. I was struck by the reminder that the more we share, the more common ground we find. And that these stories are really about the personal side of business.

Like my women colleagues and me, my male colleague had his own stories to tell. We talked about how these stories shape us, and that for women and people of color, because of the power equation, sometimes they shape us more.

I was struck by the value of shared histories in creating connections and overcoming stereotypes.

Wouldn’t it be cool to sit at a table with men and women and people of all colors and backgrounds and tell our shared histories of career and life challenges that shape the people and leaders we have become…?

The Elephant In the Room

The other day, I asked for feedback from a team I was working with about the program’s value. One of the members came up to me afterward and said, “please don’t take this personally,” and gave me some additional feedback. My response was,” the elephant is in the room whether we talk about him or not. For me, I would prefer to know what you are thinking and feeling so that I can modify the program to give you results that meet your needs.”

Yes, the elephant is in the room whether we talk about him or not. There he is, clomping around, banging into things.

And yet, we often refuse to talk about him. Why is that? Here are the reasons I hear:

  • I don’t want confrontation
  • I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings
  • We can’t do anything about it anyway

My experience is that our reluctance to confront causes the elephant to cause more damage than if we just talked about him and got him out of the room.

It is our role as leaders to invite and initiate the conversation. With the elephant out of the room, we can get on to business. As long as he is there, we are focused internally instead of externally.

Perception ≠ Reality

We often hear the phrase perception is reality. Philosophers tell us that we cannot perceive reality directly; perception is all we have. “If a tree falls in the woods…..”

As leaders, we transfer this rule into behaviors, i.e., how we perceive a product becomes what it is. How we perceive a person or a company’s reputation is who they become for us. And, at work, how our peers, subordinates, and bosses perceive us becomes their reality and drives their expectations of us. 

And yet, perception is often far from reality. Even in the physical world, if we don’t have enough information, reality can be variable, e.g., without knowledge of time, darkness can be perceived as either night or a storm.

I was reminded of this fact recently when I attended a gathering with other coaches. Coaches as a group tend to pay attention to the subtleties; after all, we are trained to do so. Therefore, one would think that this would translate to “knowing” that what we perceive may not be what is. Yet, like most other humans, we miss sometimes.

Here’s one example. On the first day, we did an exercise that was a “fun” icebreaker. Hmm, well, at least it was fun for the extroverts, and, to a person, the introverts found it uncomfortable. It was an energy break for the extroverts; it was stepping outside our comfort zone for the introverts—a good exercise for sure, yet a very different exercise for us than for the extroverts. It wasn’t until I checked in with one of my fellow introverts that I understood how misaligned my perceptions were. We talked later, and I asked him why it seemed that he didn’t recognize me when we passed each other several times during the first-day exercise, and he responded, “Wow, I didn’t even see you; I was just trying to get through it.” On that day, my perception was that he wasn’t interested in engaging with me. His reality was that he was so uncomfortable with the exercise that he disengaged completely.

Another way to say this: perception is about us, reality is about the other person.

The learning for me…

Ask a question and seek to understand the reality beyond our perceptions, and life will hold some lovely surprises.

Words Matter

We live in a diverse world, and at the same time, it seems we have become increasingly intolerant. The more you look for signs of both, the more you will find it. Some say we need to stop looking so hard; I say we need to start looking harder.

Diversity is part of my core; I work hard to create diversity in my life. I find people who are different from me interesting. I learn more from people who see the world differently than I do from those who see it the same. Diversity of thought is the hardest. And, groups that achieve it consistently outperform. When everyone is thinking and saying something different, the member has a richer experience and a richer opportunity to make their own decisions.

So what does this have to do with words? We have a choice. We can live our lives surrounded by people who are exactly like us, listen to news that supports our way of thinking, and insulate ourselves from anyone and anything that isn’t aligned with our way of thinking and how we see the world.

Or, we can live in the world as it is, a mosaic of differences.

If we choose the former, we need only use words in common usage in our chosen community. On the other hand, if we choose the latter, then words matter; what is heard by the listener is all that matters.

Sometimes words can seem innocuous and harmless. For example, to some, an expression like “open the kimono” is simply a colorful way to describe transparency. Others call it sexist and racist. Forbes included “open the kimono” in its “Most Annoying Business Jargon” bracket, wherein Bruce Barry, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Owen School of Business, calls it “kind of creepy.”

Words matter in a diverse world because if we want to be heard, we must speak in a manner that allows us to be heard. Words heard as inflammatory cause the listener to stop listening and hear only the disrespect.

On the other hand, as with everything, there is another side. The side of being too politically correct. The place where we so carefully script our words that we lose any sense of honest communication.

What to do? On the one hand, increasingly, we hear words of hate and intolerance; on the other, more and more, we hear words that are so crafted they don’t mean anything. How do we reconcile these two opposing trends in our society?

I wonder if the common theme between the two is a lack of empathy and authenticity? 

  • If fear is what is truly present, rather than intolerance, how do we express this authentically?
  • Is it possible to be authentic and at the same time express tolerance of differences?
  • Is it possible to be authentic and be kind in the words and tone we choose?
  • Is it possible to express our fears and concerns while being open to hearing someone else’s truth?

Better, Better, Maybe Not?

The notion that we can constantly make ourselves and our companies better, in theory, is a great idea. But when does it become too much?

For me, the best way to answer this question is to notice our strengths and work to enhance them. As an executive life coach, I refer to this as discovering and working in our genius.

Sometimes we become so focused on achieving that we cannot appreciate who we are or what we have already accomplished. When we are constantly reaching, it’s a recipe for perpetual dissatisfaction. 

What? Wasn’t I just quoting Florence Nightingale a few weeks ago, who said discontent leads to innovation? Yup. It is indeed a delicate balance, isn’t it?

For me, the subtle difference between striving to make the world a better place and pausing to celebrate accomplishment comes with self-awareness. The stoics said it well. We must be careful not to become reactionary or to accept, without question, the status quo. We must know ourselves, know our geniuses, and recognize where and when we can make a difference and where and when we cannot.  

Once we understand and act within our genius consistently, we become more effective, more satisfied, and ultimately better leaders. 

What Is Weakness?

Last week I wrote a blog entitled “What is Vulnerability,” in which I made an effort to describe the difference between showing vulnerability and showing weakness.

A couple of readers wrote in taking issue with my description of showing weakness. 

Here is what they wrote: 

“I’m going to send this to my client who struggles with vulnerability. I would suggest something, though. Your definition of weakness – leaders often don’t know what to do and are uncertain. I tell people they don’t need to know all the answers, and it’s OK to be uncertain. They can name that and ask the group.”

“I want to argue again. The definition of weak is as bad as the prohibition of vulnerability. Weak = uncertain!!!!! Really. Where does that take leaders? They get paid to be uncertain and lead. So everyone has to pretend to be certain. I don’t know what to do, but here’s what we choose to do, is what leaders get paid for. Easy when you “know what to do!”

Receiving both of these comments from fellow coaches who I respect, caused me to pause. The second one came from Rick Eigenbrod, who has been both an inspiration and mentor to me. I responded and asked him to say more which led to a conversation and the following insights.

If, at the most basic level, the definition of a leader is they have followers, then what must a leader do to strengthen, rather than weaken, their bond with their followers?

In the military, where the chain of command is strict, it might seem that it’s the structure that defines who is a follower and who is a leader. Yet we know that followers will disobey, mutiny, etc., when their leader appears weak even in a rigid system.

So, what is weakness?

Here’s where Rick and I landed on this topic:

  • Leaders must take a stand. 
  • While leaders may be uncertain about the outcome, they must be certain about their choice, i.e., give their followers something to follow. “Tell me which hill to take,” as a client of mine used to say. 
  • Weakness is the inability to find a platform upon which to take a stand.
  • Weak is being afraid to take a stand, vulnerable is acknowledging the outcome may be uncertain, our choices may all be risky, and we are moving forward with this one because…

,

The Gift of Feedback

Feedback is a gift. It is an opportunity for personal development and, ultimately, leadership development. And, it is hard; Very hard.

I am not sure which is harder, giving feedback or accepting it. Recently I was with a small group of fellow coaches, several of us long-tenured, and we were discussing this very topic. We spent a couple of hours working with each other to improve our skills at both. I mention long-tenured, as a reminder to myself, that no matter how skilled we think we are at this, it is hard, and requires constant practice. Following are the reminders I heard.

When giving feedback:

  • Start from a place of care, ask yourself what outcome you want to achieve from the feedback, and get clear that you really believe that outcome is possible, i.e., is the person capable of the behavior change you want to see?
  • You can earn trust with truthful, specific, positive feedback (TSP as speaker, Michael Allosso, calls it).
  • When giving constructive feedback, ask first if the receiver is open to feedback.
  • Even better, wait until the feedback is asked for.
  • Own your experience, share feelings and observations; be specific.
  • Use neutral language, e.g., my experience of you… or When you do…, I feel…
  • Remember, the purpose of feedback is to share your experience of another person, not to “fix” the other person.

When receiving feedback, remember it is a gift:

  • Ask for feedback, and be specific about the purpose, e.g., I want to become more effective at…
  • Listen and digest.
  • Try not to defend or respond, simply say, thank you.

Let’s work together. If you are looking to grow or get unstuck and cut the time to action to six months or less, there is no better time than now to contact me. 

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