Finding the emotional courage to make mistakes (and learn from them)

As a leader, you take courses and attend workshops. You listen to the feedback given to you by your boss – both informally and in performance reviews. You share best practices with peers and learn what’s worked for them, too. You devour articles and books about leadership. You read this blog. 😉

You take your role seriously and you want to learn how to do better. 

And that’s the key: In addition to LEARNING new techniques and strategies, you have to DO the new techniques and strategies.

Some courses or workshops include activities based on real-life situations, role-playing exercises, etcetera which are useful but it’s very different to use skills in real-life situations with your team members than it is to try them out in a classroom.

Taking theory and putting it into practice takes more than just conscious effort. Let’s face it, it can be much easier to read about how to deal with difficult employees or how to tackle bad conflict on your team than to actually start using new ideas.

I’ve often had coaching clients express feeling uneasy about following through on what they’ve learned. What if it goes wrong? What if it doesn’t work? What if I don’t do this right?  Of course, the easy answer is, “what if you keep doing what you’ve been doing and nothing improves?

The thing is, successful leaders in any organization don’t get there by knowing more, they get there because they put what they know into practice. They wade into those tricky areas of leadership – like managing office politics, addressing problems promptly, improving communication among team members or departments, making the best decisions in crisis situations, leading with confidence through difficult times, building trust in the office and more –  and they take action.

Being able to use what you learn to improve your leadership takes what nowadays we call emotional courage (it would have been simply guts or intestinal fortitude in the past!). It means that you find the strength to push through unsettling feelings of discomfort, anxiety or dread to try something new. Having emotional courage is what lets us take risks, face things head on and break old habits.

As with any new skills, practice makes perfect. You need to test out the things you’ve learned and see what works well and what could be done differently or better next time. The more you practice, the easier it becomes to use a technique again – even when emotions or stakes are higher.

Learn how and when to practice your leadership skills:

Be brave. Making the decision to act is part of the battle because fear flourishes when we feel uncertain. Don’t overthink it, just do your best. Some folks like to give themselves permission to fake it till they make it. Perhaps you’ve been putting off having THE TALK with your pre-teen. Pick a time and place and wade into that uncomfortable topic of the birds and the bees with a few key points to focus on. Those feelings you’re pushing through? Surprisingly similar to deciding to have a difficult conversation with a team member who is not contributing as they should be at work.

Start with low-risk situations. It takes time to build confidence and learn to use new skills well. Test them out in times that are less intense so that when you need to use the same skills in a crisis, you’ll feel more comfortable. For example, having a difficult conversation (without losing it or giving in on your position!) over a personal billing situation will build your confidence to handle conflict with a big client who is unhappy with an invoice sent by someone on your team.

Aim for progress, not perfection. Too often, we beat ourselves up for not getting things perfect the first time. Keep in mind that you are learning to apply these skills to infinite combinations of situations and personalities. There may be times that you do all the right things and there might be times you realize you could have done something differentlyand that’s okay. You’ll learn more from your mistakes than you will from not trying.

Keep adding to your toolkit. Successful leaders are lifelong learners because what works in one situation might not be the best strategy in another. And what worked 2 years ago might not be best now. The more we know about and test different skills, the better we can be.

Solicit feedback. Don’t be afraid of hearing where things fell short from your peers, your team or from a trusted mentor. Good leaders aren’t afraid of criticism and see feedback as a learning opportunity. If you’re having trouble with getting feedback, or how you’re reacting to it, maybe work with a coach. Remember that the best athletes have coaches (and so do many of the most successful leaders!).

Practice, practice, practice all the time. The more you use your leadership tools, the better you’ll develop those muscles. Many folks find it helpful to refine their leadership skills outside the office (there’s that low-risk opportunity again!) so they are more confident using them at work. For example, you can test whether you’re listening to respond in your personal relationships, help to strengthen working relationships in a community group or try a COACH Approach as a board member on a volunteer organization. Interacting with people from varied backgrounds will help you hone your skills and expand your thinking.

Take time to reflect regularly. Journaling can be a very helpful way to focus on ways to improve your leadership (so much so that we consider it the one leadership habit you can’t live without). Consider areas you’d like to improve in like giving better performance reviews or having essential conversations and take note of any achievements you make in these areas. You can watch for opportunities to try out different leadership tools in different situations.

Coach’s Questions

What leadership skills have you learned about but hesitated to try in real life? What’s holding you back? How and when can you practice something this week?

What to do when faced with an office betrayal

While we expect some office politics or complicated workplace relationships, sometimes folks are blindsided by an office betrayal.

As a leadership coach, I hear different ways people feel betrayed in business. Things like:

I confided in a coworker, who then gossiped to others and hurt my professional reputation.

I found out that my relationship with a big client has been sabotaged. My colleague is either trying to take the account over or ruin it for me.

I worked so hard on this project, but another colleague took credit for it.

My boss promised me that a job was mine, and then the company announced that someone else has been promoted.

I work closely with other team members and found out that they’ve made important decisions behind my back.

I trusted a team member and in the executive meeting they threw me under the bus.

I trusted a client to pay for or deliver goods or services, only to be left in the lurch. This has really hurt my business.

However it happens, betrayal is trust that is broken. It might be trusting someone you shouldn’t have or learning that you’ve been deceived or conspired against.

You’re left shocked, angry, sad, hurt, unvalued or indignant – or a combination of these feelings.

How devastated you are by the betrayal typically depends on how trusting your connection to your betrayer is (so being betrayed by a competitor might not be as upsetting as being betrayed by a mentor or a teammate at work) or whether the breach of trust was minor or major.

Still, here you are, left feeling upset, suddenly insecure and maybe even feeling stupid. Now what? How do you handle an office betrayal and how do you move forward?

Stay calm and assess the situation

Sometimes our first response is to confront someone and get to the bottom of things. Whether someone else has brought the betrayal to your attention or you’ve uncovered information that suggests betrayal, you need time to figure out what has actually transpired. Ask yourself:

  • Are you dealing with gossip? Hearing things second-hand?
  • What proof do you have that you have been betrayed?
  • How objective can you be about the situation?
  • Are you making any assumptions (check out our Ladder of Assumptions tool)? Jumping to conclusions?
  • Was there actually intent to betray, sabotage or deceive you? Or is it possible it was thoughtlessness or lack of professionalism or a misunderstanding?

Keep in mind is that others don’t read things the same way you do and they don’t see the world the same way you do. It doesn’t mean they’re right or wrong, it just is. Now, I’m not suggesting you excuse the behaviour just because they’re different than you – I’m saying it’s worth reflecting on how they might have seen it, before you confront them based on your own assumptions, and your own way of seeing the world.

For example, perhaps Rob tells you that Jane was taking credit for a project that was your idea. Was she maliciously trying to ignore your contribution? Or is it possible that Rob overheard only part of a conversation and doesn’t realize that she made it clear that you deserved more credit than she does?

Have that difficult conversation

You might want to either rage or hide, but once you’ve quickly assessed how you might be reading things differently than the other person, the next step is to have a conversation with the person you feel betrayed you. (If this is the n-th time this has happened, or it is so egregious you really feel you can’t face them, then you can talk to your boss or Human Resources, or someone else who has the authority to do something about it.) But, you should almost always have a reasoned conversation with the other person first.

One of the biggest things to avoid is having a conversation with someone else about the person and the situation – without seeking a solution. It’s one thing to go to a trusted friend or colleague or mentor and say, “Here’s what happened; how do I deal with it?” – which can be helpful, compared to, “Here’s what happened; can you believe how awful they are?” – which may feel helpful but now you’re gossiping. In our leadership workshops we call this “triangulation” and it’s one of the worst malignancies found in organizations and relationships.

It’s uncomfortable for many folks to confront someone, but it’s possible to turn difficult conversations into essential conversations. It is much better to have a private conversation (in person, not by text or email!) about something that is troubling you than to carry it around, building on the assumptions in your own mind.

How you approach the conversation is crucial and will set the tone, so rehearse how you’ll broach the subject. Remember that the other person might not even realize that you feel betrayed. Yep, it’s possible.

For example, perhaps you thought you were going to be given more leadership opportunities but the boss has assigned your colleague to head up the latest project. Instead of walking in and complaining that should have been your opportunity, state your concern and ask about it with more curiosity:

“You know how we discussed me growing in a leadership role? I was surprised I wasn’t a candidate to lead Project X. Could you tell me how you decided on the lead this time and what I could do differently to be considered next time?”

You sound professional, motivated and open to hearing how to improve. You’ll likely find out more than if you went in angry and might even find out that you’re up for something bigger and better.

Perhaps it’s a situation where a coworker didn’t keep information you shared private. Instead of going in angry and accusatory, try a less directly accusatory approach:

“I told you about the new business leads in confidence. I was really shocked when Janet told me you told her all about them. What happened?”

It’s possible this colleague will confess that he couldn’t help it and broke your confidence. It’s also possible that you’ll find out that Janet baited your colleague by pretending to know more. Again, there’s a difference between deliberate and unintentional actions. The result may be the same but how you approach the “culprit” will go a long way in determining the relationship between the two of you.  

Susan Scott, author of Fierce Conversations, said it best, “Our work, our relationships, and our lives succeed or fail one conversation at a time. While no single conversation is guaranteed to transform a company, a relationship, or a life, any single conversation can.”

To help ensure success in the conversation, be sure that you aren’t listening to respond – this is a time when you need to listen to understand.

If the stakes are higher – like you’ve learned that a team member you trusted has allegedly harassed the summer intern or someone is “borrowing” from petty cash – or someone is maliciously trying to ruin your professional reputation – seek guidance from Human Resources, a trusted mentor or even legal counsel. Leave the difficult conversations to be mediated by professionals with experience handling these more delicate situations.

Otherwise, take a few minutes to prepare your thoughts before you start an essential conversation with someone – or download our free worksheet to help you get focused.

Figure out what you want

There is no one way to resolve a situation of betrayal. Here are some things to consider:

  • This is the time to have your say. State the impact of these actions on you, your team, or the company as applicable. You can be candid about your hurt, disappointment or anger and still remain professional.
  • When you speak up after a betrayal, you’re holding the other person (or people) accountable for their actions. This helps to clear the air and allow you to move toward finding solutions – or in dire situations, consequences like dismissal or corrective action. It also might help prevent this situation from recurring.
  • Focus on problem-solving rather than blame.

Be clear about what you want. This might be, for example, something like:

“I’d like a shot at drafting our next product pitch. What could I do to be considered?”

“It will be hard for me to trust you with confidential information. It’s going to take work to rebuild that.  I’m willing to try next time I’ll be very clear when something is not to be shared with anyone.”

Rebuild trust or create distance?

It’s always good to reflect on your role in the situation but can be hard not to blame yourself when you’ve been betrayed. Try to leave the what-ifs and I should-haves out of your inner dialogue and take situations like these as learning opportunities. As you reflect, consider:

  • What did you miss?
  • Did you ignore warning signs?
  • What might you have done to lessen the chance of this happening?
  • Did the person intentionally betray you? Did they offer an effective apology?
  • How could I have responded differently?
  • What can I do now that I know about this?

Try to learn lessons from the situation and determine how to protect yourself in the future. Remember that the betrayal says less about you than it does about the person who broke your trust. And, your response to it is a reflection of you, not them.

Some work relationships are worth salvaging, though rebuilding trust may take some time. Some work to build a more cohesive team can help if the situation was based on a misunderstanding, poor communication or insecurity.

If the breach of trust is great, and discipline or HR policies don’t result in the betrayer being fired, you may still have to work together. Be professional, but exercise caution when you interact with someone who has been purposefully malicious or untrustworthy. Try not to speak with them without a third party present, communicate in writing so there is a record of who said what and quietly document interactions. It’s possible that you might want to ask that you work with another team or department going forward.

Whatever you do, don’t engage in gossip or backstabbing. Cultivating strong work relationships takes time and energy, and sometimes even professional workshops to help build a stronger team. Remember that you don’t have to like someone to work with them effectively. And you can put your energy toward those team members who do have your back!

Coach’s Questions

What can you do differently when faced with a workplace betrayal? How can you support a team member who feels betrayed? What can help to rebuild trust?