How changing your perspective could change your career

As an executive coach, I get to work with leaders of all levels in organizations across the public and private sectors. I get to really know the issues they face and the successes they realize.

From working on leadership skills, self-perception, career trajectory, responsibilities, promotions through to ego, anxiety, stress, and perfection, I get to support leaders to become stronger and their organizations and teams to thrive.

Of all the issues I’ve heard, of all the challenges that I’ve helped people to navigate through, there is one that rises above the rest in terms of its potential to take people down: interpersonal relationships with colleagues.

Few things challenge us more than when a relationship with a colleague or a supervisor isn’t going well. It seems subtle, but struggling with a colleague or boss can have a huge impact on how happy we are at work and, in fact, how well we perform.

The dangers of confirmation bias in the workplace

Something I often pick up in conversations with my coaching clients is how much we all believe our own perspective – how embedded our own “reality” is for all of us. We often don’t see things from the other person’s perspective, even if we think we do.

That might mean we don’t realize how they’re seeing us, or we don’t realize how we’re being heard, and how that’s affecting the other person.

We get so wrapped up in what we think is right or good or how things should be and it damages our ability to make clear and objective decisions in the workplace. If we’re looking at things through our own lens without taking others into account, how can we see a situation from all sides?

Then, through our narrow view, we find ways to validate our perspective and stick with our vantage point. But, there’s a way around this.

Changing perspective: meet them where they are.

This is a concept that we use in coaching to help our clients consciously shift their perspective. By looking at the situation from the other person’s angle, we can broaden our view.

Let me explain this in a concrete way.

A client of ours, we’ll call him Jeff, is a Manager with a large financial institution. His colleague, we’ll call her Sarah, was recently promoted to Director, which means she’s now Jeff’s boss.

Jeff had noticed that his colleague, who used to be sociable, outgoing and encouraging of him had changed. She seemed to be unhappy with him, avoiding him at the leadership meetings, and almost snapping at him with her responses when they were in a group. Jeff was certain that the “power had gone to her head” and that Sarah was defensive in her new role and trying to assert her newfound authority by “acting like a boss.”

As we talked, Jeff even acknowledged he had started to complain to a couple of his peers and was looking for them to support his view. When one of his colleagues agreed, he felt vindicated.

As we talked I used coaching questions to probe with Jeff what Sarah’s point-of-view might be like. It was challenging for Jeff to step away from his own views and his own beliefs but eventually we got to a point where he started acknowledging where Sarah may be (meeting her where she is).

First, that stepping into the Director’s role would be difficult and that Sarah likely had a lot of pressure on her. Digging deeper he was able to reflect on what Sarah might need to rise to the occasion and feel successful in her new role — and was he providing the support she needed?

As we explored that a bit further, Jeff mentioned a sales report that Sarah had asked him to do. It was a tedious thing that Jeff felt took him away from his clients. He saw little value in the report and had put it to the side a few times. But, Sarah had pushed him for it more than once and he had started resenting that.

As we continued to try to see the world from Sarah’s point of view in her new role, Jeff had a bit of an “a-ha” moment. He realized that Sarah, in her new role, might rely on that report to “manage up.” In other words, that report was likely important for Sarah to demonstrate to the VP that she, and her team, were succeeding with her as Director.

While this wouldn’t explain why Sarah didn’t talk to Jeff about her concerns and explain the importance of the report, or her frustration with him, it nevertheless might explain the rift that was occurring.

While we couldn’t yet be sure this was the cause of the rift, Jeff was able to see it could, quite easily, be a key source. And, his resentment around it might have contributed to furthering the problem.

So while it would have been ideal for Sarah to have a courageous conversation with Jeff about her concerns, Jeff was prepared to start the conversation himself. In trying to look at the world from Sarah’s perspective Jeff viewed things from a different angle and even learned a few things about himself in the process.

If you’re facing a challenging relationship in the workplace, see if these steps help:

Shift your perspective.

Meet them where they are, looking at things entirely from their perspective. Yes, it can be tough. It means resetting every time your hear yourself thinking, “Yah, but…” because that means you’ve shifted back to your own view again.

Acknowledge, and try to accept, different styles.

Each person has their own behavioural style, their own way of looking at the world. They’re not necessarily trying to be difficult and rarely do people behave completely irrationally. When we think something is irrational, we’re probably seeing the world differently than the other person sees it. That’s a good cue to try to meet them where they are.

Think about how you’ve been seen and heard.

When a relationship seems to have shifted, think about exchanges you’ve had with them – email, in person, and phone calls. Is it possible some of your communication could have been misunderstood?  Is it possible you’ve missed something in the communication from them?

Pushing back is a cue.

When you feel yourself getting resentful, or frustrated, and pushing back to someone (especially your new boss!), think about WHY you’re feeling that way. When did it start? What thing(s) generated your response? Try to reflect on those events from the other person’s point of view.

Think about the good times.

Was there a time when your relationship with this person seemed stronger? What was different? How were you showing up differently? How were they?

And finally,

Start the process of fixing things.

That may mean getting the sales reports in on time. It likely also means, have a conversation where you acknowledge the tension or frustration and your desire to find solutions.

As Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations, said:

“While no single conversation is guaranteed to change the trajectory of a career, a company, a relationship or a life — any single conversation can.”

The Coach’s Question for this week: What relationship might benefit from a new perspective?

 

Communication breakdown? How does it happen and how to avoid it.

Communication breakdown. It happens all the time.

You know the one – when you think you’ve delegated something to someone on your team and it turns out they misunderstood completely what you were looking for. They show up, deliverable in hand, and it’s so hard to understand how they got it so wrong.

Shoebox Comic

 

I mean you were pretty clear, weren’t you?

Maybe it only happens when you’re in a hurry or preoccupied (or your team member is). Maybe it’s when things are shifting rapidly and there hasn’t been enough time to adjust to new protocols or processes.

Those types of situations are easier to understand but what can be really frustrating is when it happens over and over again with the same employee or two.

So, you start to avoid giving important tasks to “Bill” because he never seems to get it right. It often feels like you spend more time explaining and fixing a miscommunication than the task itself takes.

Well here’s the tough-to-take news: It might be that Bill isn’t the strongest employee, or it might be you.

Not that you’re a bad leader, or a mumbler, or a poor delegate-er because obviously other members on your team understand your direction.

So, where is the breakdown?

It could be that you’ve got a strong communication style.

Let’s take a look at what that actually means because, at first glance, a strong communication style doesn’t sound like a bad thing (and it’s not, necessarily).

We don’t all understand, process, and hear things the same way. Depending on my experiences (over time and that day!) and the lens through which I view the world, you and I could hear the same sentence and understand it in very different ways.

The problem with a singular strong communication style is that communication, even when delegating and giving direction, must be two-way. The employee receiving the direction must receive and understand the message in the same way you think you’re giving it.

For example, imagine that you’re managing a team and there’s been a big delay on a really important project that has to be addressed today. You decide to ask “Bill” to take care of it right away. But, Bill has been swamped all day and another project lead he reports to has already demanded more of him than he can deliver. But, Bill’s trying so hard to do a good job and doesn’t know how to say no to a superior (to his detriment).

Because your communication style is strong and it didn’t take the receiver of the message into account, the task was given to Bill and Bill is overcommitted.

A receiver-based communication style, in this case, would take Bill’s communication skills into account. As Bill’s manager, you would know that he tends to take on too much. You might recognize he gets intimidated by you, particularly when you are fired up, so you make sure to give him an opportunity to fill you in on what’s currently on his plate before piling on more.

You may have noticed this in other situations.  

When someone is angry, they tend to look at the world resentfully. When someone is joyous and eager, they tend to hear things optimistically. You could give the same message to these two people and they would each hear it differently.

Learning to adapt our leadership to the individual requires a bit of work. It requires observing and listening to the employee to start figuring out their behaviour type, using emotional intelligence to adapt our style when required, and communicating in ways that we can confirm the message is received as intended.

What do you do to adapt your communication to the individual? What more could you do?

Five things to avoid becoming an executive bully

You’re not an executive bully, right?

Surely you’d know if you were. You don’t scream at people or threaten them. You don’t needlessly intimidate them.

And maybe you’re not an executive bully but, once in awhile – maybe under stress – some bully tendencies show up.

Or, maybe you are a total bully, but you have no idea.

Perfectionism, strength and determination can sometimes feel like bullying to those who look up to us.

Even if it’s not how we mean to come across.

Are you inadvertently being an executive bully?

If you want to be certain that you’re not participating in executive bullying, take a moment to reflect on these thoughts. Do they describe you or someone you know?  No scoring needed – you’ll know where you are.

  • You tend to dismiss those who disagree with you or assume that they don’t have the big picture perspective that you do.
  • You fall in love with an idea, position, or deal and have a hard time letting it go or stepping away from it.
  • Your staff doesn’t challenge your point of view very often.
  • There is little disagreement or debate within your leadership team.
  • When your team does debate an issue, there is a clear divide between the points of view and the same people usually end up on sides together.
  • You have success but you’re not sure if your team enjoys working with you.
  • You often feel like you’re the smartest person in the room.
  • Your team rarely reports bad news.
  • You often feel like if you had the time, you’d rather do everything yourself.
  • You don’t consider your contribution when things don’t go to plan.
  • You don’t remember the last time you apologized for something.
  • You find yourself correcting others – a lot.

So what if some of these resonated with you? Or you can see some tendencies of yours in the above? Here are five things you can do make sure you don’t turn into an executive bully.

Set and enforce a “no bullies rule”

How many senior teams have a member who shuts down everyone else’s ideas, is driven to win every argument, never gives credit to the troops and excels at touting his or her own accomplishments. If your company puts up with this, you are enabling executive bullies. If YOU do it, you’re setting the tone. Give team members explicit permission to call out this behaviour — even when you are exhibiting it yourself.

Remember, your instinct may be to react negatively or to deny. Try instead to absorb the feedback while remembering “if I get better at what I do, this whole team will be better in what it does.”

Pass the ball

Business is a team sport. No single leader can be expert at everything. Most of us, in fact, have glaring blind spots. The best executives recognize that and call on others with different strengths to help. Just as executives have content skills, they also have process skills.

If your skill is achieving success or driving a project hard until it succeeds and you’re worried your weakness may be how you engage others in that success — find a colleague who is willing to “speak truth to power.” In other words, they’re willing to call “BS” when they see it and ask them to help you observe yourself and give you feedback regularly.

If it’s too difficult to ask a colleague, engage an executive coach to be your thinking partner.

Welcome contrarian voices

Have you ever considered hiring people because they have a different point of view from you? How about formalizing the role of “Devil’s Advocate?” A high profile investment firm executive, interviewed in the Wall Street Journal put it this way:

“We have formalized the role of the devil’s advocate to force a structured dissenting view in our investment meetings…. By designating another senior member of our team to argue against an idea with the same rigor with which it was researched by the industry specialist, we ensure a balanced argument is not only presented but also heard.”

It reminds everyone that contrarian views can be shared without repercussion.

Take a look in the mirror

Try your best to honestly see yourself as others see you, and then ask, “Is that the way I want to be perceived?” One great way to learn how others see you is to have a coach conduct a 360° exercise — so your peers, staff and boss can all share input for you. It can also be helpful to make video recordings of yourself during meetings and watch them with an outside observer who has no stake in the game — perhaps an executive coach. Or, ask your coach to sit in on a couple of meetings to assess.

Are you willing to accept harsh realities and confront the problems that your direct reports bring to your attention? Did you respect the ideas of others? Did you encourage thoughtful debate, or did you squelch it?

Create and enforce a charter

This one can be a challenge, but well worth it.

Creating a charter isn’t the hard part — getting input from all levels of the organization to define what is acceptable behaviour can be a great exercise. But, who enforces it? Who calls out, and coaches, the senior leader who isn’t living up to it? How do you build a commitment to the charter in your day to day work?

In other words, when the stakes get high and the going gets tough, how do you make sure you’re still living up to the charter? If you can answer those questions, you’re well on your way to a solid charter.

Most leaders want to do the right thing for their companies, their people, and their communities. They don’t set out to be bullies. It’s doubtful that even the worst offenders think of themselves that way but, they may become executive bullies anyway.

Is there someone in your organization who could be an even stronger contributor if they were less of a bully? Are you willing to do everything you can to make that happen – even if it’s you?