Heard any bad news lately?

Every organization, even the best of them, has bad news and trouble brewing from time to time. Do you have an early warning system in place or might you be letting it build?

What can we learn from Brexit about leadership?

David Cameron, the now former PM of Britain following a devastating referendum loss on the Brexit situation, may be the poster-boy for not listening for bad news.

Advisors were aware of the deep unrest within Britain and leading up to the referendum, many were fearing the likely “leave” vote. What isn’t clear is how much of that fear and advice was making it to the Prime Minister and, if it was, how much of it was he actually hearing?

It has become well known that PM Cameron listened to only his closest advisors and even then, gave them little encouragement to give him the bad news.

A Cabinet Minister was once quoted, anonymously, as saying, “Nobody comes out of Dave’s office feeling better than when they went in.”

The Brexit vote and ongoing devastation of the British economy is, perhaps, the most massive recent example of a leader not heeding the bad news before the rest of us read about it in the newspapers.

Another might be the leaders in Enron Scandal leading up to the destruction of the company. As the late leadership scholar, Warren Bennis once said:

“Unlike top management at Enron, exemplary leaders reward dissent. They encourage it. They understand that, whatever momentary discomfort they experience as a result of being told they might be wrong, it is more than offset by the fact that the information will help them make better decisions.”

But what about you and your organization?

The consequences of you not hearing the warnings and the bad news might not make headlines around the world but I suspect it could devastate your own world, and your organization, just as brutally. How do we prevent that? How do we help you ensure you’re on top of things?

I’ve got a few suggestions:

Seek out feedback and bad news. Then seek to listen.

Ask open and honest questions in meetings and then listen more than you talk. Actively listen to each person. If you’re a frequent reader of The Coach’s Questions you’ll know one of our mantras comes from Stephen Covey who said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” The goal we encourage our clients to seek is to listen to understand.

While you’re at it, listen for what isn’t being said.

Recognize some folks who are reporting to you, regardless of your level or title, may feel uncomfortable giving the boss bad news. Their unconscious view on the world may be that it’s better to not upset the boss then to give them bad news. Assure people of your desire to hear everything, explain how it is helpful for you to know the bad news well ahead of a problem. And then…

Control your emotions when receiving feedback, in other words don’t shoot the messenger. Be hyper-aware of your body language and facial expressions when you receive difficult feedback or bad news.

You might be inadvertently shooting the messenger by looking angry, cynical or mocking when you’re unconvinced of their view. That type of reaction spreads like wildfire and will all but ensure that person, and those around them, will no longer be inclined to give you honest feedback again.

Thank people for feedback.

When they do provide you with the difficult update, acknowledge the contribution and thank them for their willingness to help surface the issue and their willingness to engage you.

Spend time with the troops.

Leaders who spend time walking around and truly engaging with people who do not report directly to them open up communication and makes themselves real to the people who do the work. People are more apt to provide feedback to someone who appears emotionally and physically accessible.

Hire an executive coach.

Whether with us, or another firm, one of the jobs of an executive coach is to help you seek feedback and learn more about yourself –- your personality, your strengths and weaknesses, your mental models and habitual emotional reactions.

A coach will help you understand how and why others react to you and you to them. This could even include interviewing folks around you to hear things you might not hear, or setting up a 360 evaluation for you.

One of our favourite questions to ask of staff is “What does X need to hear that you don’t want to be the one to tell him/her.” The results are often as astonishing as they are enlightening.

The Coach’s Questions:

What in the last six months has cropped up that you wish you had known sooner? What prevented you from knowing sooner? What might be brewing now that you don’t even know about — and what are you going to do differently in the next 7 days to find out?

Do you have Impostor Syndrome?

When people learn I’m an executive coach, they often ask me what my clients struggle with.

They’re curious to know what’s the most common topic for executive coaching. It’s probably not surprising that the range of topics our clients bring to us is as diverse as the clients themselves.

However, if pressed, one thing I would have to say percolates to the surface with many, perhaps even a majority of our clients is the Impostor Syndrome.

An American psychologist named Dr. Pauline Clance is credited with naming the concept which occurs when generally highly successful people experience strong feelings of unworthiness, self-doubt and a nagging belief that they have gotten to their role in life or in work by luck — simply being in the right place at the right time, or by someone else having made a mistake in choosing them.

Original research around this surprisingly common phenomenon focused on women, and it may occur more often with women, but it’s clear in our work at Padraig, it happens frequently for men too.

In the early months of my coaching career, after having just completed graduate studies in coaching, I was surprised to start learning how often this syndrome affects middle and senior leaders. But you see, I wasn’t surprised that it happens — I was surprised it happens to others.

Impostor Syndrome is more common that you think

For most of my career I was, what most people would see as a success. I rose from entry-level to executive level in less than five years. At the time I was the youngest of 2500 senior executives in the Government of Canada. I dove into opportunities as they arose, took on new assignments as they were given to me, often being asked to lead teams and organizations that were struggling. To the outside observer, my career was a spectacular success with a clear trajectory.

Yet throughout most of that time I didn’t feel good enough. I felt like I was lucky, not qualified.  I worried I was going to blow it.

I occasionally reflect on those days and wonder what I might have accomplished had I thought differently, or … how much more I would have enjoyed myself, had I changed my thinking.

Some time ago, Quartz published an article online from Olivia Goldhill about this syndrome. In the article she quotes several big names who all admit to feeling this way.

Facebook COO and famous author of Lean In, Cheryl Sandberg quoted by Reuters said, “There are still days when I wake up feeling like a fraud.”

Renowned author John Steinback, in 1938 wrote in his diary “I am not a writer. I’ve been fooling myself and other people.”

Oscar winning actress Jodie Foster, speaking at a Women in Entertainment Power 100 event, where she was the guest of honour, said, “I always feel like something of an impostor. I don’t know what I’m doing.”

So, it seems I wasn’t alone in feeling this way. In fact, in the mid-80s, Dr. Clance and a colleague found approximately 70% of people experience this phenomenon. And, keeping in mind how much more complex, personal and highly assessed leadership is now, compared to the 80s, I can only assume that number is even higher for leaders today.

So, that’s one of the ah-ha moments for me — the recognition and acknowledgement that I, and many of our clients, have suffered this feeling — undeservedly and more often than not, in shamed silence.

Why Impostor Syndrome is good

Now, the Quartz article also raised a really interesting possibility – that there is actually a correlation between the impostor syndrome and success. In other words, suggesting “those who don’t suffer (some) impostor syndrome are more likely to be real frauds.” The way I read that is that our mental health will be stronger when we can acknowledge we almost all feel like frauds, and that’s ok, rather than putting on a brave face and/or denying, even to ourselves, that we’re feeling this way.

I can understand the Quartz angle. It’s true that people who feel like impostors tend to care deeply about the quality of their work. To ensure they do a great job, folks with impostor syndrome tend to study harder and work longer. We don’t want half-baked results, particularly if our work affects others.

The problem is, all that comes at a huge cost.

Why Impostor Syndrome is not so good

“Impostors” often equate competence with perfection. We believe every bit of our work must be exemplary. Anything less leads to inner criticism that leads to shame based on a perceived “failure.”

Then, because there is such shame in failing, we’ll sometimes avoid new or difficult things because achieving results that we feel are suitable takes so much effort. I wrote about this result of perfectionism in an earlier blog post, Is Perfection Preventing Progress?

Further, even if you’re willing to dive in and you’re really motivated to succeed, success is rarely satisfying because you always think you could have done better. You negotiate a great deal but wonder if you could have gotten a better one. You offer up great advice in an executive team meeting but beat yourself up for not remembering one other point. You coach your employee who is struggling but berate yourself for not doing it sooner.

Or maybe the doubt has kicked-in and you find yourself missing opportunities because you believe you have to know everything and be an expert before contributing so you waffle back and forth in an important meeting, “Should I say something? Should I not?” and find you’ve missed the chance.

And, since you do prepare so much and strive so hard, you usually do deliver a fantastic contribution — which in turn reinforces your goal of maintaining perfection. But, you’re setting yourself up.

Does any of this sound familiar?

When you expect to be perfect it’s not a matter of “if” you will be disappointed, but “when.” We know then the disappointed starts the cycle of berating yourself all over again. Perfectionism is very difficult to stop, because it is self-reinforcing.

How Impostor Syndrome affects you and your organization

Now imagine the effect on the organization when a leader who has spent their life trying to contribute perfectly and has been seen as a great contributor, lands the corner office and is hamstrung with anxiety, and self-doubt, thinking they have fooled their way into this job.

How does that anxiety manifest itself, how does that need for perfectionism trickle down to your staff? We wrote about that previously here.

So where am I going with all this? You can do some things to lessen the burden of the Impostor Syndrome and to not only enjoy your work more, but to actually be more successful as well:

  1. Become aware of when our self-talk is self defeating. Acknowledge the criticism you’re telling yourself and ask yourself why.
  2. Start being more selective about where we put our “perfection” effort and spend less of our effort and inner strength on things that matter less. Remind yourself of the words of the late author, Jennifer White: “Perfectionism has nothing to do with getting it right. It has nothing to do with having high standards. Perfectionism is a refusal to let yourself move ahead.”
  3. Practise acknowledging to yourself, and to others, that perhaps our goal should be balance rather than perfection. As a coach friend of mine once said to me, “What if it turns out it’s not about doing things right or wrong, but instead it’s just about doing them?”


Coach’s Question

How is the Impostor Syndrome showing up in your self-talk? How is it affecting you and your work? What is ONE thing you commit to doing this week, to break the impostor habits and to accept that you are not lucky, you are not “good enough” — and acknowledge you are GREAT?