How good leaders handle criticism

You can’t please everyone is a truism that is particularly important to leaders.  

Leading others in an organization practically by definition means having to make decisions where there is no obvious easy choice. Realistically, there is no choice that will make everyone happy.  

Part of the responsibility that comes with the benefits of being “the boss” is having to make those tough calls and being able to weather the fallout. Some team members will simmer quietly, expressing their upset and discontent behind closed doors and out of your earshot. Others may be much louder, even challenging you and your discussions.

Facing criticism or discontent can be challenging. As Norman Vincent Peale (the late author of The Power of Positive Thinking) said, “The trouble with most of us is that we’d rather be ruined by praise than saved by criticism.”

I once worked for a boss who really liked to be liked.  

This boss was the kind of leader who really wanted to keep people happy with his decisions. It was terrible!

You see, we had a huge project with a lot riding on it and many different points of view. No matter what he did, someone criticized the decision. The more that happened, the fewer decisions he would make.

What if leaders are strategic about who they try to please?

Of course, there are some leaders who always base their decisions on who needs to be happy. They make a decision so a key client won’t criticize them, or so the union won’t, or so a board member won’t. Unfortunately, this means they’re not really making the tough decisions: the client is, or the union is, or the board member is — and often those folks don’t have the full picture that the leader has..  

By seeking to avoid criticism, they are abdicating their authority – and the responsibility – of making the right decisions on behalf of the organization.

How do good leaders make decisions?

Good leaders listen to the opinions of those other stakeholders. They consider multiple points of view, review facts and important information related to the issue, and then they implement the decision they believe will most benefit the organization.

And you see, this is the first key to handling criticism: If your focus is on making the right decision for the organization (not on making yourself look good, or making yourself popular), then it’s easier to confront the criticism head-on, and to debate the merits, without taking it personally.  

The more you try to please others, the more you’re making it personal – and the more you make it personal, the more the criticism interferes with your ability to lead. That’s a vicious circle that results in an indecisive leader who soon gets type-cast.

Once other team members recognize a leader can’t make a decision, you can bet there will be some who go around that leader.

So how do we deal with criticism and remain a rock solid leader?

First, don’t take it personally. That sounds a lot easier than it is, in practice, for many people. The key is to remind yourself, constantly, who or what you’re making the decision for. It should be the good of the organization and its business (products, services, clients, etcetera). Literally reminding yourself of this (silently repeating to yourself, “what is the right decision for the organization?” or something similar) will not only help you make your best decisions, it starts to remove the sting of criticism when you hear it.

Second, don’t react. At least, not immediately! Closely tied into the problem of taking criticism personally is leaders who get defensive quickly. Because they take what critics say personally, they react badly. If they took a minute to review the situation, evaluate the validity of the criticism, and consider how it relates to the big picture they might see it as accurate. The reality is that most criticism will have some truth to it (for example, this decision did affect that department badly…even though it was necessary for the larger organization, or it wasn’t the route that board member would have liked..even though it addressed the falling share price).

Evaluating criticism against the big picture – and how the decision did address the problem or opportunity for the good of the organization – will help you stay grounded in determining whether it was, indeed, a good decision. Note I didn’t say “the best decision,” or “the right decision.” That’s because sometimes there are multiple bad choices, and you have to pick one. Or there are times when there are a number of good choices, but for very different reasons – and you have to pick one.  Making a good decision (even if it turns out it’s not the very best decision!) is often better than missing the opportunity to make any decision at all.

Third, consider whether the criticism is an opportunity to learn. Perhaps you weren’t aware of something, or it’s entirely possible that you miscalculated or moved too quickly. None of us are perfect! Our decisions will not always be good ones – and considering the criticism helps us learn for the next situation, the next decision.  

Great leaders are great listeners – and criticism is an opportunity to listen. Remember, listening doesn’t mean you have to do anything other than genuinely listen and consider what is being said.  

I want you to remember one of the mantras we at Padraig constantly share (courtesy of author Stephen R. Covey): Most people don’t listen with the intention to understand, they listen with the intention to respond.  

Use criticism as an opportunity to listen to understand (it takes practice when you’re used to listening with the intent to reply!), and then decide whether it’s worth learning from. Sure, you’ll begin to learn that some folks are out to criticize you for all the wrong reasons, but some criticism will have merit and it might be constructive. When those around you have valid concerns and worthy feedback, hearing them and understanding them will make you stronger as a leader and will help them see themselves as helping you

The Coach’s Questions:

What criteria have you valued most when making tough decisions? When those decisions were criticized, how did you feel? How did you respond? What decisions are facing you now, and how will you manage them having read today’s blog?

How to set boundaries at work

One of the topics raised by our clients everywhere we go is work-life balance  – or perhaps more aptly, a lack of it.

It’s a perplexing dilemma. You want to prove your worth and reliability and being indispensable is certainly a good thing during economic downturns.

Many employers (perhaps unwittingly) reward “face-time” or time in the office and connected over productivity, failing to realize people who work smarter and have rich personal lives can be far more effective on the job.

The end result is feeling that you can’t ever accomplish what you need to do during a standard workday  – or quite possibly that nine to five has become seven to nine or midnight. Oh, and weekends and holidays? Those are opportunities for catching up on work, right?

Why do we need boundaries at work?

It’s a slippery slope to burnout if your boss and team members rely on you constantly and you feel you cannot ever unplug from work.

Now is the time to start setting some boundaries that let you work smarter, not endlessly. You have been hired to do a job, not give up your personal life.

If you feel like you’re doing the work of two or three people it can be gratifying, but maybe your role has ballooned so much that it is actually time for the company to hire someone to share the workload.

Consider, too, that there is something incredibly wrong with a workplace that could not function without a particular team member present. What if there is a tragedy? Will work grind to a halt and the workflow falter because one person is not available? That’s a problem –  and not being able to have evenings, weekends, and vacations free from the office is often an indicator of that problem.

Taking steps to set limits on your availability can feel uncomfortable, even scary when you’ve agreed to long hours and constant contact in your efforts to achieve career success.

Why is setting boundaries at work so difficult?

It’s hard to change what has become routine, and there are different reasons why folks feel stretched too thin.

Sometimes we start work at a dream job with a demanding employer and work very hard to impress and gain respect. Volunteering to take on more responsibility or demonstrating loyalty can quickly end up with feeling overcommitted.

Other times we’re excited to do more and help, and don’t notice right away that the pressures are building and not stopping until it’s really close to the breaking point. It can feel so rewarding to be needed and appreciated that we don’t realize that, perhaps, we’re becoming the office pushover.

To be fair, if you are always willing to do more and don’t ever say no, your employer may not even think whether the demands are too much. It’s much easier to assign work or delegate responsibility to someone who is reliable and keen than it is to find someone else.

Unfortunately, dialing back the workload can feel like admitting you can’t cope. Some of us might worry we’ll be judged harshly for any refusals. In a culture where long hours and time-in at the office is the norm, and even rewarded, it can be hard to be the team member who asks for something different.

When is it okay to set boundaries?

Realizing that there are sometimes that it’s actually wise to set boundaries may help you set limits at work.

Here are some examples of when we think it’s perfectly okay to set boundaries:

It hinders your ability to accomplish your responsibilities: Those times that you ordinarily say yes to extra duties to show you’re a team player can sometimes leave you scrambling to focus on your primary role and deliver on your required work. It’s tricky to say no, but if you really feel reluctant to take on more because it’s going to make your regular work harder, focus on the need to deliver well on your main duties. Give your boss the “why” to your no by outlining that you’ll be working on X this week and can’t take on Y unless the boss prefers that Y is completed instead of X. This way, the boss can decide either X or Y after considering the options. This is more of a “yah, but” than a “no,” and protects your work time while allowing you to be the best you can be on the chosen project.

It doesn’t align with long-term and short-term organizational priorities: When you’re working in an organization you will, undoubtedly, have your own career and organizational goals you are expected to help deliver. When someone comes to you with a request for help, consider your priorities. Remember that the organizational goals should always come first. If the request doesn’t align with those priorities, then you have your reason not to agree to do the extra work.

When you disagree with the decision: This can be tough. You may face a situation when your peer team (your first team) or your boss make a decision after you’ve had input and offered up good conflict around the idea – now the decision maker is going in a different direction and it’s important for everyone on the team to commit to the decision and hold each other accountable for delivering it. But, if you weren’t part of the decision-making process, “no” might be an option for you. Framing it as, “no, but let’s see if we can find a better way” can work well when you weren’t part of a decision-making process that directly affects you or your staff  – or for those (hopefully rare occasions) when you overrule your staff.

When you can’t deliver: If you know you won’t be able to deliver the results required in the request, it is crucial that you say no – or no, but. This is not only important for your sanity, but also because it’s not good for anyone to say yes if it’s not going to happen. Explain the no with a reason, such as “I won’t be able to deliver the results you need in that timeframe and I don’t want to leave you hanging at the last minute” or “I’m not the right person to get that accomplished, we could check with IT for someone with that expertise.”  Many of us who hate to say no will face this situation and forget that it’s usually worse when you fail to achieve the goal, or fail to achieve it on time, than just having said “no” upfront.

It conflicts with your values: This is undoubtedly one of the toughest situations. It requires consideration, but it also requires steadfastness and courage. In these days of anti-bullying and #metoo, it’s particularly important that we know our values and stand by them. Saying no in a values-based situation can be difficult and feel threatening, but it will also be the most affirming type of no you will likely ever use. If possible, talk through your approach with an ally or coach before you respond, but don’t hesitate to the point of ignoring the situation.

When you need to say no for now: Sometimes the task isn’t the issue, it’s the timing that is stressful. Don’t forget that you can say no, but make it a negotiation. For example, you can respond, “I’d be happy to put in some extra time on this, but I can’t this weekend (or this week or tonight). If it would help, I could set aside X next week and take this on and have it finished by Friday. Or, perhaps someone else could start it and I could take a look at it Monday morning before we send it out.” In this way, you’re protecting your personal time and ensuring your workload doesn’t become unmanageable, but you’re still offering to help and giving some solutions.

Saying no (without losing respect)

As you can see, it’s possible to say no without seeming obstinate and uncooperative. When there are reasons for saying no or not right now, it can be better not only for you personally but for the organization.

You do not have to agree to everything to be a good employee. In fact, you could be setting yourself up for a breakdown from stress and rushing to finish work that could be accomplished on a different (and smarter) deadline.

Saying no with grace, confidence, and reasons to reconsider the timing or the delegation of work can be better for the team. You could be giving other people opportunities to share their time and talents and it’s possible other people need to learn how to also set some boundaries by following your lead.

If you’re faced with a sudden and unexpected request and you aren’t sure what to do, remember that you don’t have to answer immediately. Buy yourself some time to think and strategize with a cheery, “Let me check my calendar quickly and I’ll get back to you.” This leaves you in control and protects your schedule (without feeling like you’re not a team player!).

Setting boundaries at work will soon feel empowering. Improved work-life balance leads to greater job satisfaction and improved well-being.

Today’s Coach’s Questions are:

How is your work-life balance currently? What is your biggest challenge to setting boundaries at work? What is something you can try this week?

 

Achieving work/ life balance

There are times that balancing the demands of work and personal life feel impossible (even laughable!).

When we work with individuals and companies, we often hear from folks that they’re struggling to find a way to try to balance these demands, let alone actually achieve balance!

Advances in technology have changed workplace culture. I read an article in Time magazine that said from 1986 to 1996 there were only 32 references to work-life balance in the media. Fast forward a decade and it was a very hot topic (mentioned nearly 2,000 times in 2007!). Unfortunately, here we are another decade later and it feels like we haven’t done much to address the challenge.

But just because you can be reached 24/7, does it mean you should be available at all hours? If layoffs have decimated your team, does that mean you have to give up any claim to your personal life to stay employed?

As we delve into the idea of achieving work-life balance, remember to:

Think big picture: What are your longer-term family goals and work goals? What do you want at this moment in life and what do you want at this moment in work? Sometimes our short-term goal isn’t necessarily aligned with the long-term goal. For example, this week or month our family may need more from us even if our longer-term goal involves a strong focus on career. Conversely, this month I need to really contribute a lot at work, even though I have strong goals of family time while my kids are young.

Be flexible: It’s good to have goals, ideals, and values, but sometimes we have to remember that it’s big picture balance as well. Don’t beat yourself up if you feel you’re not giving enough to your family this week. Look at the big picture balance: The kids are going to remember the time you spent with them in summer.  Will that be negated if you get home at 7:00 p.m. instead of 6:00 p.m. for a little while? (Honestly, that’s a question for you. Maybe it will, but maybe it won’t).

Consider this a process: When we try to balance work and life, it may feel like we’re not giving enough to anything. It may help to think of managing towards the goals instead of balancing. Or maybe balance needs to be week to week or month to month and not necessarily day to day.

Be open to changing expectations: Remember, too, that where we are in life can determine what balance means. For example, our stage of life can make the right balance very different. The right balance when you’re single with no kids can change greatly when you marry or have children. Similarly, an unexpected illness or the death of a loved one can impact our priorities. Let your plans and goals morph when they need to.  In some of these situations, it might come back to that question of short-term vs long-term goals.

Why balance is important

The old adage that all work and no play makes Jack (or Jill!) dull has some truth to it. Living to work is not going to build meaningful relationships with friends, life partners, and family. And we all know the other adage, “no one ever lay on their deathbed and said, ‘I wish I’d worked longer hours.’”

Achieving balance is when we work to live – we’re busy, but have time for things both at work and in our personal lives. As satisfying as work can be, we need time to relax and rejuvenate. Some folks will feel their best when they volunteer in the community, play sports, spend time with loved ones, or pursue a hobby.

Finding time to nurture your personal life is good for the soul. Finding a mental and emotional balance helps us to be more present when we are at work. Failing to do this usually ends in burnout or breakdown.

Our health and wellbeing also benefit from movement. Sitting all day can damage our health. Being active and practicing yoga or exercising also helps to manage stress and anxiety in healthy ways (and yes, for those who know me well, you’ll know this is an example of me looking out for you by saying “do what I say, not what I do.”).  #bestintentions

Setting boundaries

It’s okay to define some aspects of how you use technology. There are a number of ways to set boundaries without being unresponsive. Think of it as establishing rules for when you’ll reply quickly and when you’ll be away from work.

When you are given a work cell phone, for example, you can leave your office hours on your voicemail (just remember to keep it updated!). If you work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., you can let them know when you’re in the office and that you’ll respond to messages left after hours within one business day. If it’s an emergency or you’re on holiday, let callers know who to contact in your absence for urgent matters. Otherwise, you’ll get back to them on X day.

Similarly, you could let your coworkers know that your home is tech-free certain times (perhaps the dinner hour or after 7 p.m. and on weekends). When people know they’re not going to reach you immediately, it’s amazing what can wait until you’re back in the office.

Do you always reach for your phone and check emails the moment you wake up? Instead, try to leave that for the first 30 minutes of your workday or the 15 minutes you’re on transit to get to work. One of the best moves I made was to stop charging my phone in the bedroom but rather to charge it by the front door.  It means I’m not taking it up to bed with me (and running the risk of being on it til the wee hours), or checking it even before I’ve brushed my teeth. Keep mornings for exercise, eating well, getting ready for your day, and seeing your loved ones off. Putting your personal life first can be extremely gratifying and leave you ready to tackle work during actual office hours.

Further, if you do check voicemail messages, texts, or emails from home, consider choosing which ones are a priority and which ones can wait. You don’t have to jump to reply to each and every point of contact – and you certainly don’t have to reply straight away. The “mark unread” feature on email helps a lot, or create a folder “stuff to do first thing in the morning.”  

If you’re on holiday, protect your time off by leaving your work cell and laptop at home (or at the office!). If you don’t have someone who can fill in for you and you have to be reachable on holiday, set certain hours to check messages and handle replies. Again, your personal time is important and your wellbeing is, too.

In many ways, as work culture has evolved into this constant contact, some of us have accepted the intrusion into our personal lives without question. Start setting some small limits and enjoy the freedom of unplugging regularly from work demands.

How to say no

Part of being able to implement some work-life balance is being able to say no gracefully.

It’s hard for some of us to say no. We might fear repercussions if we don’t take on more work, or guilty that we’re letting the team down.

It’s possible that saying yes all the time has become a habit (and it can feel so good to be needed!).

There are, however, times that you can and should say no. It’s okay to decline to serve on another committee or head to the pub with the team after work: “I’d love to but unfortunately I can’t make that fit in the schedule” is conciliatory but firm.

The thing many of us fail to realize is that personal life can be every bit as important as work. And what is urgent at work may not be important in the long run. We have to determine what deserves our focus and make some judgment calls about priority.

Tune in to our next blog in two weeks to learn more about ways you can say no without losing respect at work.

Keeping commitments to yourself

You don’t have to justify wanting to carve out uninterrupted personal time for yourself. It can feel odd not to give reasons why you need time unplugged from work, but do you really have to give details?

Focus on working efficiently, not slogging away for excessive hours. If you can meet your deadlines and work goals (for yourself and the company), then clearly quality is more important than quantity. Top performers typically face less resistance negotiating flex time or telecommuting.

Too often, employees (particularly women), can be judged harshly when childcare demands conflict with work demands. If you are able to telecommute or have a flexible schedule, you could request a day to work from home or flex your hours without announcing that your youngest is sick or your aging parent needs to go to the doctor.

Some folks share many details about where they’re going on vacation and how they spent their weekend. You are under no obligation to share all the details of your personal life with your work colleagues. Vague statements like, “We’re getting off the grid and away from it all!” are friendly, but send a pretty clear message that you won’t be reachable during your time off.

In short, you are entitled to live a personal life separate from your work life. Educate yourself regarding your company’s policies around personal days, flex-time, leaves, and telecommuting. Then, when you wish to exercise these options, build your case based on how this accommodation will help you achieve your work goals rather than the personal commitments demanding your time.

Changing the paradigm can be very freeing. You’ll feel more in control of your time and enjoy having time to focus on your family, friends, or what matters to you in your personal life. When you model this in the workplace, you may also witness a culture shift in time as others follow your lead.

Coach’s Questions:

What matters most to you? Where would you like to draw the line between work and your personal life? What’s stopping you from feeling balance in your life? And what is your plan to address it?

How to Apologize

Asana, our project management software company, recently published a blog post called, “How to Say Sorry at Work” that really resonated for us.  

We’ve summarized some of their thoughts and added a few of our own based on our work with hundreds of leaders and leadership teams.

Healthy relationships are important for teams to function well. Human nature sometimes gets in the way, which means that sometimes relationships falter. Effective apologies allow for reconciliation and moving forward.

When you should apologize

Usually, you’ll realize when you’ve offended a colleague in some way. Perhaps you said something thoughtless, forgot to give someone credit for work they completed, or maybe you were having a bad day and lashed out.

Disagreements can get out of hand and we’re not always as calm as we’d like to be. Sometimes we intentionally or thoughtlessly make choices that injure someone else’s feelings.

Then there could also be times where you don’t realize you’ve hurt someone’s feelings until they won’t speak to you or let you know they’re angry or hurt – or other colleagues tell you that you went too far or made a mistake.

Not sure whether you’ve offended someone? If you reflect on what has happened and have any feelings of remorse or twinges of guilt, an apology from you is probably warranted. It’s possible you really can’t see how you offended the person, but you know that they are upset and it’s having a negative effect on your team. In that case it’s always worth asking, first.

Essentially, if you have said or done something to cause a colleague grief, frustration, or any other kind of distress, you should apologize. Fractured relationships make work difficult for everyone and without an attempt at repairing them, they can fester and become quite toxic. We don’t have to apologize for a contrary point of view and apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean you’re changing your view the apology is about how you, in that situation or conversation, made the person feel.

Err on the side of cultivating healthy workplace relationships and reach out to offer an apology (even if the person says not to worry, they’ll know you value their feelings!). Remember that the whole point of an apology is to attempt to make reparation for the pain you’ve caused and to build a stronger relationship.

What is an effective apology?

We’ve certainly seen many examples of quite serious breaches of trust (complete with public relations nightmares and legal consequences!) play out in the media in the last year. Consequently, we’ve also witnessed the importance of a well thought out, sincere, and meaningful apology (and what happens if it’s perceived to have been made with little effort, insincerity, and nothing of substance!).

Whether your transgressions are small or massive, an effective apology will demonstrate that you’re remorseful and acknowledge the impact it’s had on the other person.

Most importantly, a good apology is not about you. Even though you might feel less guilty after apologizing, an effective apology is for the benefit of the other person. It has to be all about them.

How to deliver your apology

The most effective apologies will be:

Sincere – You have to say it when you really mean it or risk coming off as disrespectful (and more offensive!). The apology is about putting the other person’s needs and feelings first, so you also need to ensure that you are not inadvertently trying to make yourself feel better. Nothing sounds more insincere than making yourself the main topic of the apology.

Full of empathy – You need to recognize how the other person feels. If they are feeling angry, sad, hurt, embarrassed, or betrayed, you need to demonstrate that you really understand the emotion they are experiencing.

Taking responsibility – This is when you own what you’ve done. You don’t attempt to explain it away or rationalize it or defend it; you find the courage to be responsible for your actions.

Acknowledging the impact of your actions – A good apology is going to validate how the wronged person feels. It’s important to acknowledge you understand how your actions have caused hurt. Someone who feels their feelings are being acknowledged and legitimized will be more willing to accept you are being sincere.

Offering a way to make reparation – It helps immeasurably to show that you want to make things right. Depending what happened, you can usually offer a way to fix a mistake or at least not repeat it again. Just make sure that if you make a promise, it’s something you can stick to. It’s harder to have an apology accepted for a repeat offense.

Pick your moment to apologize wisely, based on how you think it will be best received by the person you’ve hurt, without waiting too long. It becomes too easy to tell yourself the moment has passed, they’re over it, etcetera, if you wait too long.

Some people are quite private and will appreciate a quiet conversation. If you were aggressive or angry, it may be best delivered on neutral ground where the other person doesn’t feel cornered.

If you are apologizing for something that happened in front of the team, you may want to consider making a more public apology as a way to show everyone that you’re truly sorry and trying to make things right and, of course, to model the behaviour you want in your workplace.

It is uncomfortable to make an apology, but don’t put it off. The sooner you can take responsibility, the more quickly everyone can move forward.

 How to Apologize Do’s and Don’ts 

The last thing you want to do when you apologize is to make a situation worse. Here are some things to keep in mind:

DO be prepared for the offended person to still be angry. They can accept your apology, but healing from hurt or broken trust takes time. Give the other person room for those emotions.

DON’T try to wiggle out of the discomfort. It can be very awkward to face someone you’ve offended, but this is a time to talk – not text or email. Face-to-face someone can see and hear that you are sincerely remorseful.

DO be prepared to listen. The other person might have a lot more to say about how hurt or upset they feel.

DON’T argue if this happens. Part of taking accountability is hearing the full impact of your actions. The apology may start a dialogue that is uncomfortable for you but important for restoring the work relationship.

DO acknowledge that the situation is awkward and uncomfortable. It’s not easy to apologize and sometimes just saying out loud that it’s really awkward helps to alleviate the tension and get the conversation started.

DON’T make excuses. If there is a reason for something, then provide it as a rationale. For example, saying, “I’m sorry I lost my cool, but you knew that we were understaffed” is an excuse and will not show you are taking accountability. However, saying, “I’m sorry I lost my cool. Even if I was stressed from being understaffed, I need to work on my anger and stress management skills” gives a reason without trying to excuse you from responsibility for your actions.

DO ask for help if you aren’t quite sure how to make things right. For example, “I’m really sorry I missed the deadline. I don’t really understand how to do this and I should have asked for help in the first place. Do you know who could help us?”

DON’T say the words “if” or “but” when you apologize. Saying, “if you” or “but you” is putting the blame on the other person. Remember that the apology is about you taking responsibility and communicating regret for your actions. There is no room for blame in an effective apology.

 

Try to approach apologizing as a way to show that you’re professional and accountable for your behaviour in the workplace. Being able to offer an effective apology is the first step to repairing a relationship and a valuable skill for every member of a team.

Admitting your weakness or fault shows a strength of character and emotional intelligence. Taking responsibility and doing your best to make reparation shows you are a person of integrity who can put aside your ego for the good of the team.

 

The Coach’s Questions

What do you find most difficult about apologizing? Can you think of a time you’ve been wronged and someone has apologized effectively? What made the biggest difference? What strategies can you use the next time you need to apologize?

 

How to cope when everything goes wrong

You sleep through your alarm the day of a big client meeting and then get stuck in traffic. You’re late, there’s absolutely no way to change it, and you can feel the tension as you walk in the room. As awful as all of that is, you’re desperately hoping no one notices your shirt is missing a button and your socks don’t match.

Just as you hit print on a report due shortly, the computer freezes. The clock is ticking and you can’t even get the mouse to move on the screen let alone get this document to the printer. And did you save that brilliant conclusion paragraph, or are you going to lose it all and have to start over?

Out of the blue you get a frantic text from a colleague and realize you’ve missed a crucial conference call. Somehow accepting the invite by email didn’t show up in your calendar.

You’re waiting for a direct report to deliver some numbers to you when you get a call that she’s been hit with a terrible flu. Now what?!

Can’t you just feel your shoulders tense, your stomach sicken, and pressure build in your head?

Let’s face it: Some days, one thing can be enough to knock your day sideways. Add a few horrible mistakes, a reprimand from a superior, or some spectacular typo into the mix and you can be left feeling like nothing is going your way.

Accept the reality

It happens. Sometimes the unexpected throws a wrench into the best-laid plans and other times, despite our best efforts, we miss the mark or make a mistake. What on an ordinary day might be a hassle can be intensely more challenging if we’re faced with a series of stressors.

As upsetting as it is, these are times we have to accept the bad and decide what to do about it. Whether we handle setbacks with temper and a defeatist attitude or grace and determination is up to us.

That’s not to say you’re not going to feel frustrated, angry, upset, or despairing. We’re human and we feel emotions. It’s how we cope when things go wrong that is key.

Prevailing wisdom today among psychologists is that there are two choices for how we cope:

In problem-focused coping, you look for solutions. The situation can be fixed, but you have to figure out how to make it better. So if your computer freezes and you can’t print, you can either troubleshoot on your own or call the IT guy for help. If the person you’re relying on for information has gone home sick you might find out if she can email you the file to finish up or perhaps reassign the work to another team member and adjust the deadline.

In emotion-focused coping, you realize and accept the situation is futile. The only thing you can do is try to find a way to feel better about it. For example, if you sleep in and then get stuck in traffic then you know you’re not going to make that morning meeting on time. Or if you relied on technology to put the conference call in your calendar but didn’t double-check, it’s too late now and so the question is how you react to it. Are you able to take a deep breath and make a quick apology before getting to work?

The trick is, for either coping response to work you need to be able to work through your state of alarm to determine how to best respond. When we’re upset, the alarm system is activated and we feel anxious, ill, and overwhelmed. Physically, we could be experiencing things like rapid pulse, a tightening of the chest, upset stomach, perspiration, and fighting back tears. In those situations we sometimes try to fix the situation with problem-focused coping, when all we can do is accept.  Or, we fall into emotion-focused coping when, in fact, there might be other solutions we could find.

De-activating the alarm system

To cope, you have to regulate all these emotions because you can’t respond appropriately when you’re in full-blown panic mode.

You do this by recognizing how you feel: I’m furious, shocked, panicked, or worried. Whatever those feelings are, awareness allows us to manage them so naming them is important.

Once you label a feeling, you can consider the source. So, for example: I’m freaking out right now because I can’t believe my alarm didn’t go off and now I’ve let my team down.

As you move from the emotional response to a rational assessment of the situation, you can actively practice emotional regulation. Taking a deep breath counters that “fight or flight” response by getting enough oxygen to your brain. Consciously slowing your breathing tells your brain and your body to calm down.

When you’re calm, you can think logically and choose whether problem-focused or emotion-focused coping is the right response.

Communicate

When things go wrong our instinct can be to duck and cover. But once you have a clear idea of the problem and which coping strategy you’re going to use, it’s time to communicate with anyone who might be affected by the situation.

It’s always a good idea to get out in front of the problem. So if we use the example of being late for a big meeting, as soon as you realize it’s impossible for you to make it on time, make some calls (pull over if you’re driving and you don’t have hands-free calling – no need to compound your bad day with a ticket, or worse, an accident!).

Not only is it common courtesy to let someone know you’re running late, it prepares them and might help you relax. Instead of walking into a roomful of people who are annoyed at being kept waiting, you’ve tipped them off. They might still be annoyed, but you’ve owned the situation and given them the chance to grab a cup of coffee or catch up on emails. 

Open communication demonstrates honesty and accountability. I think most of us would rather have some idea that something has gone awry for a team member than discover it later. Involving the appropriate people in the moment gives everyone an opportunity to mitigate the fallout.

Don’t blame

Try not to find someone to blame for what’s gone wrong. Even if someone else played a role in what happened, it’s not helpful to start pointing fingers. It can appear petty and it certainly won’t make people want to work with you if they fear they’ll be blamed for mistakes.

If you’re tempted to find a scapegoat, take time to reflect, get your emotions under control, and consider things rationally. Do you often blame others for your mistakes? Should you take responsibility? What lessons can you learn from this?

Keep your focus on solving the problem instead of blaming anyone (including yourself!). What matters is dealing with what went wrong. When you do this you’ll rise above the challenging situation and demonstrate resilience, which is motivating and much better for morale on your team than playing the blame game.

Keep moving forward

Look at problems as learning opportunities. Everyone makes mistakes — the goal is to avoid making the same ones again!

It’s normal to feel discouraged. Those of us who are perfectionists may struggle disproportionately with small errors, let alone significant failures. Being able to accept that you can’t control everything is hard, but necessary at times.

Try to keep your inner voice a constructive critic; examine the situation and figure out where you could do better next time or how you can salvage the situation if possible.

It’s not easy to stay positive, but your attitude in adversity could do you credit in your career in the long run. Do your best to own your mistake and work through it with as much positivity as you can muster.

Each time you navigate through a difficult situation or setback, you’re building resilience. Reach out to mentors or family and friends for the support you require to stay strong at work. The toughest business leaders don’t usually start out that way because it takes time – and support.

Everything is temporary

Though it feels awful in the midst of turmoil, remind yourself that this, too, shall pass.

One horrible day, week, or situation does not define your career. Focus on the bigger picture and using what you’ve learned from this setback to achieve your goals.

Just like Olympic athletes have to pick themselves up and dust themselves off after a fall, you need to regroup and keep going.

A supportive team is ideal, of course. Always strive to encourage, support, and lift the spirits of your team members and when times are tough for you ideally you’ll encounter support and positivity as well.

It can be helpful to have a plan to help cope with the stress of a workplace challenge, like heading to the gym, taking a yoga class, talking with friends, or volunteering somewhere. Whatever helps you stay calm and makes you feel like you’re accomplishing something will help you keep any setbacks in perspective.

Tough times are inevitable, but they won’t last – especially if you have the right attitude.

This week’s Coach’s Questions are:

When have things gone really wrong for you at work? After reading this blog, how would you assess how you responded in the past to challenges? What might you do differently?

When a lateral career move makes sense

When you think of career success you might think mainly of climbing up the corporate ladder, but don’t rule out moving laterally.

It’s becoming more common these days, particularly in industries hit hard by the economic downturn, to move or pivot sideways. What we’re seeing is that a lateral move isn’t just about survival.

Making a lateral career move can be a very smart decision that will help you achieve more success in the long run or enhance your health and well-being in the present.

Change can be good even if you’re moving over instead of upwards.

Consider the move

In fact, there are certain times that a lateral move can be very advantageous. Let’s consider a few of the most common reasons you may want to look for opportunities to make a lateral move:

You need out of a toxic work environment. It’s exhausting to face working with a peer or a boss who makes your workday miserable, or the stress of a team embroiled in daily drama. Finding another employer who needs your skills and experience or a similar role within your organization in another department could be your ticket out of a negative situation.

Your current job could be downsized. Sometimes we see grim signs that the company may be in trouble and hear rumours of impending layoffs. If you’re worried that you may not have a job in a few months, it may be time to actively search for another opportunity somewhere else that is similar to your role and offers more job security.   

You don’t feel quite ready to climb up the ladder. If you have your eyes set on a career goal, but you know you need to demonstrate some more diverse skills to move up, a lateral move is a great stepping stone. It can give you experience managing direct reports or projects, help you network more, build deeper knowledge in your field, and give you new responsibilities. Finding a new role that gives you a chance to learn more – or a new boss who will be a great mentor – can be very beneficial to your future success. And, it can give you more visibility within the company.

Family circumstances require action. Perhaps your spouse has been transferred, your child needs medical treatment in a different city, you’re taking care of aging parents, or you’re finishing a degree. There are definitely times when our personal lives are so demanding that a lateral move is more sensible than a promotion. A lateral move that offers some challenge (without additional responsibility!) will give you time to grow in your career at your own pace.

You like your job, but want a bit of a change. Some of us reach a point where we’re happy doing what we’re doing and don’t want to move up the corporate ladder. And that’s okay! In fact, we often work with folks who wish they hadn’t taken that last promotion but rather stayed doing what they loved. In those cases, you may still want to take what you know to a new role for some variety. A new team, project, or industry could be invigorating without upsetting your work-life balance.

You want to work on your own terms. Some of us reach a point where we have different priorities. If you’re sick of a long commute or long for a work culture that allows flex time or provides an on-site fitness centre, a lateral move can be life-changing (and readily achievable!). There are many employers who offer benefits that you value, and that you can secure with a lateral move.

Conquer imposter syndrome

Have you ever secretly wondered when everyone is going to realize you don’t actually know what you’re doing? If you’ve ever doubted your abilities despite earning your role and building success as you move along in your career, you may be struggling with what we call imposter syndrome.

If this is you, you’re not alone. There are many extremely bright and capable people who work very hard, but cannot shake the feeling that they’re fooling everyone else that they’re actually competent. This distorted thinking takes over, undermining their confidence and how they perceive their skills and abilities.

One great way to drown out that negative inner monologue is to build comfort and confidence in your career with a lateral move. For someone struggling with imposter syndrome, an upward move is only going to increase the stress and anxiety that this façade will come crashing down.

Instead, find a lateral opportunity that you can embrace and give yourself time to build experience in a role that you enjoy. With more time and demonstrated success, you should be able to drown out that negative inner voice and eventually move up with confidence.

Build skills and broad-based experience

In today’s global economy, narrow and deep experience may not be as beneficial to your career as more broad-based experience.

At one time, we might have seen any move other than upward as stagnant. Not anymore! The right lateral move is truly a development opportunity – so much so that Deloitte even refers to a “career lattice” instead of a career ladder.

As companies are leaner, employees who bring diverse skill sets and a wealth of experience are desirable. How can you demonstrate agility and ability? By succeeding in a lateral role.

Now, it means you’ve still got to focus on your end game. If, for example, you move from one department to another, you’re learning some fundamentals all over again. You’re likely even starting over with contacts and networking with new people. However, as you build on your previous experience and understand a completely new facet of the company or industry, you’re becoming more valuable and marketable.

A smart lateral move won’t stall your career; it can actually improve your career trajectory in time when you seek mentorship, learn all you can, and expand your network while demonstrating a breadth of ability. Use a lateral move to give yourself solid, broad-based experience to leverage into a more senior role.

When timing is a factor

It can be daunting to contemplate making any career move, and sometimes we have to make a move quickly.

If your spouse has been transferred and you’re on the hunt for work in a new city, you may feel the pressure to take the first job offer to make sure you’ve got a paycheque. For anyone who has significant seniority, a lateral move has to be chosen carefully because realistically we don’t have as many moves left as someone very junior.

Here are some things to keep in mind as you weigh your options:

Research your potential new employer. You’ll want to make sure that the company is financially sound and what future opportunities for growth it can offer. Is this job a replacement hire or a newly created role? Do your homework so you’re not blindsided after a move.

Prepare yourself for a culture change. A new department, company, or industry can have very real corporate cultural differences. Having a sense of what’s expected, how they work together, and even how long your new colleagues have been there (thank you, LinkedIn!) can help you ease in.

Ask the important questions. Every career move gives you an opportunity to negotiate, even if it’s for a job with the same title. So even with a lateral move, you can seek advantages like more leadership responsibility, better benefits, and opportunities to get involved in projects or initiatives. Find out about vacation days, personal days, and perks like tuition reimbursement or training incentives.

Don’t assume it will be easy.  Occasionally when folks take a lateral move they assume “I’ve got this” and go into the new role with overconfidence based on their experience at that level. In fact, each role has its own opportunities and challenges. Moving laterally will often be easier than moving up, but the reason it’s so valuable is that you’re still learning all new things. Don’t forget there will still be a learning curve.

Make the most of a lateral move. Do a little research if you’re moving from one industry to another or, for example, from a tech role into a marketing or sales role. Any time you move, it’s possible that the market value of a new role is slightly higher (or, for women, that your former employer didn’t offer equal pay for equal work!). Perhaps you didn’t negotiate your salary for your last position and weren’t paid top scale. It’s worth ensuring you are paid what you’re worth.

Essentially, when you take steps to choose your next career move carefully, a lateral move can be a very good decision for so many reasons. And if you’re hoping to move up the career ladder, it may even get you higher faster in the long run.

 

This week’s Coach’s Questions are:

How are you feeling in your current role and how is your career progress feeling? In your current role, what of the above blog post resonates and might help you in your career goals? What might stop you from seeking a lateral move?

Is it time to challenge your career comfort zone?

Change can be exciting, but it can also be uncomfortable. Anyone who’s been in an office during a merger or a reorganization knows this first-hand!

Let’s face it: When there is routine, there is usually comfort and a feeling of safety. We know what to expect, and when we can predict how our days will unfold there is typically less stress. There is a rhythm to the work week as long as we hold steady.

Some of us adapt to change more easily than others – and some changes are easier to accept than others but many of us rarely seek those changes.

When was the last time you sought to push yourself outside your comfort zone at work?

It’s human nature to protect ourselves from harm, and taking risks requires courage. Trying something new can be terrifying, but there isn’t usually much gain without risk.

Why it’s important to get out of your career comfort zone

Staying in your comfort zone can be like treading water: It feels very safe and it’s not too demanding, but you’re not moving forward.

In times we do push ourselves to leave that comfort zone, some interesting things can happen. For instance:

Better performance – A bit of alarm can actually boost our performance. At the turn of the last century, psychologists Robert M. Yerkes and John D. Dodson studied the effect of anxiety (versus a state of comfort) had on performance. They noticed slightly higher stress levels – what they called “optimal anxiety” – would improve productivity. Now, I get it – finding that “Goldilocks” sweet-spot is tough. Too much angst is counter-productive and too little only maintains the status quo.

Innovation – Staying in the comfort zone is sticking to a routine – what’s been tested and tried. When you push yourself into changes, the resulting shot of adrenaline can propel you to find new ideas or solutions. You’re more likely to exceed the status quo when you brave feeling uncomfortable to be innovative.

Increased drive – When you push yourself outside your comfort zone you’re going to be acutely aware of meeting a new deadline or achieving a new goal (instead of coasting along doing the same old thing). Finding your way through uncertainty takes focus and drive.

Resilience – We learn from our experiences, so each time you get outside your comfort zone makes the next time easier. Facing that state of “optimal anxiety” takes practice and we grow in confidence with each opportunity. In working with executives and senior leaders all over North America, I’ve come to think that resiliency is one of the top competencies required.

Self-improvement – What we find scary or alarming shifts because our comfort zone expands with each experience. Each challenge offers us a chance to grow our skills and build on our experiences, expanding our potential and maybe even helping us achieve goals beyond our wildest dreams.

When to push yourself outside your career comfort zone

It can be tricky to figure out when you’ve hit your stride at work or whether you’re stagnating on the job. There are a few things that may tip you off that it’s time to get outside your comfort zone.

Here’s what to watch for:

Boredom – Work that feels humdrum and predictable is probably not your best work.

Fear – Sometimes we limit our actions in an attempt to avoid making mistakes.

Procrastination – Avoiding necessary work is often the result of uncertainty, ennui, or feeling scared.

Even when we experience these negative feelings, the idea of trying something new can be daunting and frightening. Staying with the familiar (even if we’re not happy!) can be very comfortable. It’s hard to break old habits.

If you really want to grow and develop in your career, or if you’d just like to feel more excited by your work, it’s time to push yourself outside your comfort zone. We can find the courage to move through fear to achieve something we desire (like new opportunities! Sometimes being uncomfortable puts us on the path to success.

When it’s a good time to stay comfortable

You don’t have to always push yourself outside of that comfort zone. The opposite can be true.

All of us do best when we have time to recharge, and we’re not going to do that when we’re facing anxiety on a regular basis. It’s human nature to find a comfortable state where our anxiety and stress are minimal.

Remember that constant or excessive anxiety is counter-productive; it will drag you down and impede performance.  Think back over the last year and ask yourself if the feelings of stress and alarm have been inordinately high, or if you’ve only been feeling pushed, tested, and occasionally anxious about the unknown.  If anxiety has been continual, now might be a good time to continue building your comfort zone.

We also need time to reflect on what we experience so that we can grow in knowledge and confidence. Linger in the comfort zone as you process experiences, so you’ll figure out your strengths and weaknesses before diving into the next round of growth and change.

How to navigate outside of your comfort zone

Staying in our comfort zone is a choice, whether it’s conscious or unconscious. We stay in our comfort zone when we don’t change anything.

If you want to push yourself outside your comfort zone:

Size doesn’t matter – Changes can be small, and often little changes are easier for us to make.  Every little change can give you a new perspective. It could be eating out instead of bringing your lunch, taking a different route to work, starting a new exercise program, or taking a class to learn a new skill.

Give yourself a new perspective – Seeing the world through a new lens can be very informative. Talking with others, reading, and travel can all expand your horizons.

Dream – When you allow yourself to dream of possibilities, your potential is limitless. Your career is your responsibility and it really helps to have a sense of purpose. Not sure where to start? Try creating a personal vision statement for your career.

Take the time you need – Sometimes you need to go with your gut and make a quick decision, while other times you need to weigh options and clarify things.

Problem-solve – List all the problems and challenges you face and figure out what the barriers are. Listing them can make them feel much more manageable.

Journal – Take time each day (whether it be at the end of the workday, first thing in the morning, or in bed at night) to think and write about what felt challenging in your day and what felt routine.  Write, too, about how you responded to things and to people – did it feel easy or habitual and were you brimming with confidence in most things you do?  Once a week read back over your entries and see what your gut tells you.

Consider a career move – If you’re comfortable where you are, it could be time for a new job that will be challenging and motivating. Choosing your next career move means figuring out where to run to (not to run away from something!).

Coach’s Questions:

What’s your gut telling you? Is it time to push out of your comfort zone or time to stay comfortable?

The coach approach to leadership

We often hear people talk about leadership styles, or perhaps read articles about which is the most effective approach for leaders.

Maybe you’ve seen the results of Daniel Goleman’s study about leadership behaviours for the 2000 Harvard Business Review.

In Leadership That Gets Results, Goleman and his team identified six leadership styles after they studied more than 3,000 mid-level management leaders for three years. These included:

  1. Pacesetting – a self-directed leader who models excellence (“Do as I do”)
  2. Authoritative – a leader who gets a team to work toward a common vision and end goal (“Come with me”)
  3. Affiliative – a leader who nurtures emotional bonds and a sense of belonging (“People come first”)
  4. Coercive – a leader who insists others follow commands (“Do what I tell you”)
  5. Democratic – a leader who builds consensus and gets buy-in (“What do you think?”)
  6. Coaching – a leader who develops leadership skills in others (“What have you tried?”)

Some of us may see this list and immediately think of previous managers who fit into one style or another.

Or perhaps we can see where we ourselves might be.

But are there times when you might opt to use one style and then other times a completely different style?

Arguably, the best leaders don’t have a single style, but rather use different approaches for different situations and with different team members.

For example, in a time of crisis, an authoritative or even a coercive leadership approach may be necessary to keep everyone safe and on track, relying on the expertise of the leader.

In crisis, a democratic leadership is often not effective – whereas, in a different situation, a democratic approach would allow input from everyone and might help to gain clarity and get buy-in for a particular plan of action.

Coaching is another tool for leaders to use.

Some folks I talk to think coaching sounds daunting and that it requires a regimented technique and so they’re afraid to try. This is where I would quickly differentiate executive coaching and using a coach approach with your staff.

Executive coaching definitely requires deep knowledge, intensive education, and practise.  But, some of the techniques used by executive coaches can, quite easily, be learned and used by any leader wanting to bring out the best in their staff.

What is the coach approach?

To start using a coach approach, you don’t need to do a lot of preparation or undertake extensive education. In fact, just learning a few techniques and sticking to them will bring measurable benefits.

To start using a coach approach, keep a couple basic ideas in mind: Shift from solving problems to asking questions, be curious about everything you can possibly be curious about.  

We’ve outlined some techniques for you below.

How can it help you be a better leader

Using a coach approach will help your team in various ways and having a highly functioning team will reflect well on your leadership.

When a leader uses a coach approach, what we often see among the team members is:

Innovation thinking outside the box and coming up with new ideas by asking questions and exploring new approaches.

Self-reliance finding ways to solve their own challenges rather than trying one fixed way or continually asking for guidance (coaching helps someone struggling figure out the roadblock).

Confidence achieving success through their own effort and ability.

Goal setting coaching helps them establish and take action to achieve goals.

Engagement contributing more effectively to the team and the organization.

Taking responsibility by owning the solutions, people have more accountability for their actions and commitments.

That’s not all! A coach approach to leadership also helps improve work relationships and fosters more effective communication; team members often work more easily and productively with others – from the boss to direct reports to peers. And, of course, all of these results translate into greater job satisfaction.

Putting the coach approach in your toolbelt

Now that you know a bit more about what the coach approach is (and isn’t!), and what benefits using it can bring, you might be excited to try it out.

Perhaps you have a motivated team member with a challenge that is ideal for a coach approach.

Before you jump in, it’s good to establish with your team member that you’re going to try a different approach to working through an issue. It’s important that they understand that you’re going to explore a coach approach, which means you won’t tell them what to do or how to do something (at least not right away!), but rather you’ll help them explore things to help them figure out what will be best for them in this situation.

If you dive into the coach approach with no warning or context, your team member might feel interrogated (because you’re going to be asking a lot of questions and answering very few) or might simply wonder, “what’s going on?”

Plus, you’re going to be learning how to use the coach approach. If you’re still practising, some questions might not come out right the first time. For example, “Why did you do that?” may sound harsh and accusatory. When your approach is understood to be part of a coach approach, it can be interpreted as interested and engaged.

Here are some ways to bring a coach approach to your team members:

Keep quiet

Fight the urge to answer all the questions or give instructions to people. This is not the time to tell your team how to do things! It may mean that you have to appear that you’re not sure what the solution is (even if you do have all the answers!). It means not jumping in to fill the silence, too. You have to allow others to fill the gaps, brainstorm, and ponder.

Facilitate discussion

Open with some clarifying questions, such as, “What would success look like after our conversation on this topic?” Let your team members figure out if they want it solved, if they need fresh ideas, if this is a wise course of action, or even if they just need you to listen while they talk it through, etc.

A coach approach means you’re not in the driver’s seat, but rather helping to guide and navigate while you let them take the wheel.

Don’t ask leading questions

Use open-ended questions that have an unpredictable answer (instead of a yes or no question that leads to specific answers). For example, an open-ended question would be: “What can you tell me about this situation?” instead of the closed, “Did you do X or Y?” An open-ended question will not guide the discussion, but rather invite discussion and ideas.

Be curious

You may prompt some of the best conversations by being genuinely curious. If you struggle with being curious, try silently starting your questions with, “I’m curious…” Just asking, “I heard you mention ‘X’ – could you tell me more about that?” could help uncover things you wouldn’t otherwise find out or consider.

Check-in

As you go, check with your team member to determine whether this approach is helping them explore and whether they feel they’re making progress. For example, ask, “What would success look like after our conversation?”

Confirm Commitment

Before you finish the conversation, confirm their commitment. For example, you could ask, “So given everything we’ve talked about, what next steps are you committed to taking?”  Or, clarify what you’ve discussed and then ask about commitment, “So, I think where I’ve heard us get to is X, Y, Z. Is that correct?”  and if so, then, “So how committed are you to this? What’s your timeline for getting this underway? Or accomplishing it?”  If they’re struggling, you might ask, “what would help?” or “what would make it easier to commit to your plan?”

Ask if they need some help with accountability.  That might be, “Would you like me to check in on your progress?” or, “What do you need to help you stay on track with that plan?”

Note that you might then switch out of a coach-approach and be a bit more directive about the timeline the company requires: “We still need to be sure X is done by Tuesday. Can you commit to that?” Once you hear the yes or no, you can then check in on accountability by asking, “Do you need me to help you stay on track?” or “What will you do to keep yourself accountable to that timeline?”

Look for opportunities to use it

Knowing when to use the coach approach takes experience. It can be really effective with high performing team members who could stretch a little more on a project – especially if the work required will benefit from innovative ideas or a fresh approach.

Coaching is one tool in your leadership toolkit  – and it’s best used alongside other tools, like mentoring (sharing your previous experience for folks to draw parallels and lessons) and directing (telling others what to do and/or how to do it).

Other times you’ll find using tools like confrontation (turning difficult conversations into Essential Conversations) and good conflict (building conflict around ideas) are most effective.

A coach approach is a way to help others build on their strengths to achieve success. It works best when leaders are proficient and their team members are motivated to learn and grow professionally.

The Coach’s Questions

What scares you about trying a coach approach? Who could you talk to, to help you feel more confident in trying it?

Which leadership style are you?

Some people we click with, understanding each other with very little effort and working together with ease.

Then there are others who take, well, a bit more work, but sometimes we discover we can get there with some extra care and effort.

If you’ve ever had the feeling that you just can’t get through to someone no matter what you do, then you know how disruptive or even damaging dysfunctional communication can be in the workplace.


How well you are able to direct, delegate work to, motivate, and develop your team members reflects on your ability as a leader.

Team building activities and learning techniques to communicate more effectively can be helpful, but a better understanding of individuals will really improve productivity, teamwork, and communication.


Understanding your personal leadership style is another piece of the puzzle.

We like to bring Everything DiSC® to our clients, a personal assessment tool that’s been used for many, many years, by more than 40 million people (if you’re curious, we’ve given the quirky explanation for the lowercase “i” in “DiSC” below).  


The full version of the tool is based on a series of questions, answered online, and it provides a very detailed report that overviews your behaviour style and helps you adapt to other styles around you.

Don’t panic! There is no “right” or “wrong” type. DiSC doesn’t pass judgement, but rather helps us all understand the differences in how we and others behave.

What’s really valuable is how this DiSC model gives us ways to describe our preferences and motivators and, perhaps even more importantly, gives us strategies that work well for each style (and we touch on common limitations – so you know where you may need to stretch).

We break these strategies for each of the four behaviour styles into:

  • Directing & delegating others;
  • Developing others;
  • Creating a motivating environment, and
  • Managing “up” working with a manager and their behaviour style

The effect of understanding DiSC and using the full online tool can be amazing whether you want to strengthen your leadership, improve how a work team is functioning, or help with sales or other kinds of relationships.

Why it’s helpful

What I really like with the DiSC model is that, unlike other assessments like the Myers-Briggs Indicator, it looks at behaviours with a slightly different lens. Rather than considering our own behaviour type it focuses then on figuring out others’ styles, and helping you adapt to them to build stronger, successful relationships (whether that be relationships with clients and prospective clients through the DiSC Sales tool, or with your staff and your boss through DiSC Management, or even to help everyone on your team interact better with everyone else on the team through DiSC Workplace).

This is an important distinction because how we behave is observed by those around us. And what do we observe? How those around us behave. Not only does DiSC gives us a way to classify and name behaviours (our own and what we see in others), it helps us to learn the motivations behind them so we can make relationships stronger.

It helps in two ways:

The DiSC lens helps with self-awareness so you can understand yourself better. You’ll learn:

  • How you respond to conflict
  • What motivates you
  • What causes you stress
  • How you solve problems
  • How to be a more effective leader

It is also a tool you can use to understand your team. You’ll learn:

  • Ways to facilitate better teamwork
  • What will motivate or stress team members
  • How to minimize team conflict
  • What team members consider priorities
  • How to manage more effectively

Overview of types

When we offer the Everything DiSC profiles as a tool with our one-to-one coaching clients or at group and team workshops, we explore them quite in-depth.

Here’s an overview of the four DiSC styles so you can get some idea of what you’ll learn:

(D)ominance: This person tends to be more fast-paced and outspoken, questioning and skeptical. Priorities include displaying drive, taking action, challenging themselves and others. While motivated by power and authority, competition, winning, and success, this person fears loss of control, being taken advantage of, and vulnerability. You’ll notice someone in the “D” style has self-confidence, directness, forcefulness, and is a risk-taker and you may notice their limitations which means they might appear to lack concern for others, be impatient or insensitive.

(i)nfluence: This person tends to also be fast-paced and outspoken, but also accepting and warm. Priorities include providing encouragement, taking action, and fostering collaboration. While motivated by social recognition, group activities, and friendly relationships, this person fears social rejection, disapproval, loss of influence, and being ignored. You’ll notice someone in the “i” style is charming, enthusiastic, sociable, optimistic, and talkative and you may also notice their limitations will include impulsiveness, disorganization, and lack of follow-through.

(S)teadiness: This person tends to be more cautious and reflective while also accepting and warm. Priorities include giving support, achieving reliability, and enjoying collaboration. While motivated by stable environments, sincere appreciation, cooperation, and opportunities to help, this person tends to fear loss of stability and harmony, change, and offending others. You’ll notice someone in the “S” style is patient, humble, approaches things calmly and is a good listener and team player. Limitations may include being overly accommodating and indecisive and having a tendency to avoid change.

(C)onscientiousness: This person tends to be more cautious and reflective, questioning and skeptical. Priorities include ensuring objectivity and reliability and challenging assumptions.  While motivated by opportunities to use expertise or gain knowledge and paying attention to quality and detail, this person fears criticism, slipshod methods, and being wrong. You’ll notice someone in the “C” style is precise, analytic, skeptical, reserved, and quiet. Their limitations may include being overly critical, with a tendency to overanalyze and self-isolate.

Learning strategies for working with all styles can improve productivity, teamwork, and communication and boost your overall leadership success.

It’s important not to use DiSC and other tools to “pigeon-hole” people, and assume the description of their type captures their complex selves.  And, it’s important not to try to hide behind your DiSC type, explaining away your limitations without any effort to improve.

We offer these Everything DiSC Profiles as stand-alone tools or workshops tailored to strategic leadership, managing people, teamwork, sales, and fundraising AND we’ve included for you today a complimentary “cheat sheet” to help you figure out some of the folks around you. It won’t give you the incredibly accurate understanding we get with the online assessments, but it will give you a starting point to improve relationships.

 

[ DiSC was developed out of the work of William Moulton Marston (Google him also a very interesting guy). There have been many versions of DiSC but the original and best is the version now owned by Wiley Publishing (the version we use). It was copyrighted with a typo in the name DISC was DiSC. Once others started trying to copy it, the lowercase i in the copyrighted name became a differentiator something that helped folks identify the original and best DiSC tool, from all others. And so, still to this day, the original DISC tool is Everything DiSC by Wiley!]

The Ladder of Assumptions

What kind of preparation do you do for important work-related conversations? What kind of thoughts do you have during a crucial dialogue?  What approach do you take when you follow-up on a conversation?

Many of us will brainstorm points we need to cover so we don’t forget.

Maybe if it’s a particularly sensitive topic we’ll carefully craft wording so we don’t say something the wrong way. We might be thinking about steps we can take to communicate effectively.

These are all beneficial techniques.

I want to outline another tool that will help you prepare a little differently.

The Ladder of Assumptions, also called the Ladder of Inference, is a fascinating tool that helps us understand our thinking – so we can better interact – and thus succeed.

Now, just like climbing a ladder in real life, we’re going to start at the bottom and work our way to the top. Each rung is a different point in the process.

The rungs on the ladder of assumptions 

Ladder of Assumptions

Ladder of Assumptions

OBSERVE
The first step involves our senses. Inherently we scan our environments and pick up what can be seen and heard. It’s possible we might also notice other sensory information like smell or touch.

We are likely not consciously aware of most of the things we’re observing (this is when people talk about “I just had a feeling about it” or “I had a sixth sense about it…”).

 

FILTER
As we subconsciously absorb information about what we experience, our brain moves to the next step and begins taking more notice of certain elements. It’s human nature that we notice some things more than others.

 

MEANING
As we process this selected information, we move to the next step and start to apply some meaning to it. The way in which we do this is based on culture, experience, and past beliefs.

It could be influenced by the culture of a community, our own heritage, or the corporate culture. Or, it could be applied from our personal norms and values.

 

ASSUMPTIONS
Next, we start making assumptions based on the meaning we’ve ascribed to the information we selected. At this stage, our assumptions are based on our own view of things and applied to others.

 

CONCLUSIONS
After making assumptions we move up the ladder to drawing conclusions about the environment or situation, the world around us.

Depending on the context, this could mean we’re reaching decisions or passing judgments about coworkers, bosses, the team we’re working with on a particular project, or the company.

 

BELIEFS
We adopt beliefs based on conclusions we draw, thinking them to be true (even if there is no empirical evidence!), and these beliefs inform how we think. Our beliefs guide our actions.

 

ACTIONS
We reach the top of the ladder now as we take actions based on our beliefs. What we believe could pertain to our organization, people around us, or even the world.

Takeaways from the ladder

You can probably see how the Ladder of Assumptions could be a good thing. Our ability to use our senses to quickly assess the environment and people around us and use that information to draw conclusions could protect us from harm.

Going with our guts is often wise. However, the Ladder of Assumptions happens all the time and consequently could be less reliable if we’ve misinterpreted first impressions or made false assumptions. Let’s delve into this a bit more.

Subconscious versus conscious

It’s worth noting that the first few steps of the Ladder of Assumptions occur at a subconscious level. We’re not deciding to evaluate what’s around us based on our senses, it just happens viscerally, instinctively.

Think about walking into a crowded presentation room and what you might observe: Your senses might pick up on the bright natural light pouring in through windows, that people are stopped at a registration table to the left-hand side of you, and there’s a song you like playing in the background.

However, what you select out of that barrage of information might be the registration table while you’re not consciously aware of the light and the sound. You might grow in awareness, moving from the subconscious to the conscious. For example, you might catch yourself humming along to music and then notice that it’s one of your favourite songs!

As our mind continues through the next steps of adding meaning, making assumptions, and drawing conclusions, many of us continue moving up the ladder subconsciously.

I want you to think about that: If we’re not really thinking about this, you’re not questioning yourself. Without awareness, there isn’t any guarantee of critical thinking.

What if the data your mind noticed wasn’t the most relevant? What if the meaning you’ve applied isn’t accurate or your assumptions were way off? Now consider the impact of those missteps as you draw conclusions and adopt beliefs that aren’t grounded on facts and evidence.

Kind of alarming, isn’t it? But this is precisely why we study the ladder, so that we can try to improve our awareness. Because we’re running up that ladder all day long.

Reflective loop

A key component about us running up this ladder is that it’s not a one-time, one-way trip. Once we reach the point of making beliefs, those beliefs will then start to guide us whether they’re right or wrong and that guidance will begin to affect what we notice and the meaning we give it. This is called the reflective loop.

For example, you might notice that large trucks on the highway kick up gravel more than other cars. Then next time you’re driving on the highway you might decide to avoid following a large truck and avoid having your windshield chipped or smashed.

But let’s consider beliefs one might adopt about people based on looks, background, gender, or race. It’s entirely possible a belief might cause you to notice something in someone else and confirm the conclusions reached in the past. In this case, what we observe is self-fulfilling pre-conceived notions.

Action loop

As we move up and down the ladder our own actions can have an impact on what’s happening around us. Let’s think about that: The actions we take based on our right or wrong beliefs can affect the world around us. This is what we call the action loop and it, too, happens alarmingly often.

So when we approach the top of the ladder (which can happen in moments, many times a day, in any number of different situations we find ourselves in) and we form beliefs, we take actions sometimes consciously and sometimes not (think about body language that you may not be intending).

What we do is observed by those around us and this could cause them to react because they, too, are picking up on observations, adding their own meaning, making conclusions, etc.

Racism is a more extreme scenario, but it illustrates the action loop quite well. Consider someone who selects certain observations her mind picks up about a given race; she applies meaning, makes assumptions, and draws conclusions, causing her to adopt beliefs about that entire race of people.

Each time she meets someone from this racial group, her mind is more attuned to pick up data that she already thinks fits the stereotypes that she believes, which then confirms her beliefs. This is the reflective loop.

As she rapidly travels up the ladder and back down the reflective loop, she is going to start to act consciously, and not consciously. Perhaps she avoids coworkers from that racial group, who notice. They react, responding differently based on their observations meanings, assumptions, and conclusions based on her and her race.

At the same time, their reactions then give her another opportunity to select more data that reaffirms her initial, ill-informed beliefs.

In the action loop, the actions of one cause responses from others, which generates new actions and generates more data. And, well, you can see how this can spiral out of control in a mind-numbing few moments, sometimes without us even realizing we’re doing it.

So now imagine this in a less troubling situation than racism you and your team members forming beliefs about each other, and acting on them. Or, think about your boss forming beliefs about you, perhaps based on inaccurate assumptions, misguided beliefs, and acting on them.

Walking the ladder in the workplace

Let’s take what we’ve learned about the ladder and apply it to a common workplace scenario.

Imagine that you’re interviewing for a junior analyst position and you’re about to meet a candidate who looks great on paper. He has gone to the best schools, achieved top grades, and has excellent references from peers in your industry where he had internships.

At the observation level, the meeting room is warm and there’s a hum as the HVAC blows warm air. There’s a lingering smell of coffee from an earlier meeting. The candidate walks in, sharply dressed, with expensive shoes and well-coiffed hair and calm, pleasant demeanor. He’s obviously from a certain cultural group. At this point you’re beginning to select certain details and apply meaning.

You reach out to shake hands with the candidate, who averts his gaze. His handshake isn’t just weak, it’s mild. You might be consciously or not consciously thinking someone who averts his gaze has something to hide or low self-esteem and you feel even more uneasy with the limp handshake.

You might assume that someone with such mannerisms can’t be a hotshot analyst or has some hesitation about the work with your company. You might draw conclusions, perhaps that his credentials and references are somehow inflated perhaps you’re biased against this cultural group and you adopt beliefs that he’s benefited from affirmative action hiring in some way.

At this point, you might be feeling less enthusiastic about the interview. You sit down and check your phone for the time. You’re just going to go through the questions from HR and see how he responds.

The reflective loop here finds you always watching people from this cultural group for signs of low enthusiasm based on weak handshakes and an averted gaze. The action loop occurring would be that your attitude shifts after the handshake and checking your phone make this candidate feel like you’ve already decided against him.

He might lose motivation, believing now that he has a slim chance to impress you and his reaction to your actions are thus self-fulfilling.

The problem is that for some cultures, averting the gaze and a gentle handshake is a sign of respect. The impressions and assumptions and conclusions drawn are all ill-informed simply because the signs of respect were misinterpreted.

Now, imagine if you had applied the ladder as you prepared for the interview. If we can focus and become more conscious at a lower level of the ladder, we’ll become more aware well before we’re drawing conclusions and engaged in actions.

The challenge

We’ve given you a lot of heavy information in the blog today, but we have found this exercise to be career changing and even life changing for some of our clients.

As you prepare for a discussion, engage in a conversation, or reflect before you follow-up with someone, try to be mindful of the steps we’ve covered with the Ladder of Assumptions.

Consider questions related to the process like: What were you thinking about X situation when you decided to do Y? What have you previously thought about this person that led you there?

This ladder exercise is one of the most popular in our leadership workshops and it always blows the minds of participants as they realize they’ve made assumptions about staff, peers, and bosses that might have been wrong and how that may have affected their beliefs and their actions.

It’s not unusual to recognize that they were driven to say or do something that was based on their own beliefs or background and how that has likely caused the other person to respond.

Becoming aware of how the action loop has affected their behaviour toward staff or peers or a boss is a common “A-HA” moment in our workshop on Essential Conversations.

We’ve created a worksheet to help you walk through a personal example with the ladder, either a scenario that’s come to mind or a conversation you’re preparing to have.

Print it out as often as you find it useful. Click here  for your worksheet.