A Powerful Leadership Lesson For the New Year
Quit spending so much mental energy and time making up other people’s story!
There’s been a recurring theme to my client coaching sessions lately, and whenever that happens I know another leadership lesson is emerging. This one hits home for me in a BIG way because I’ve mastered it myself quite well over the years and have learned to notice when I’m running down a rabbit hole fast. It’s a chronic habit of over analyzing things I don’t understand and making up my own story about it, especially when it involves someone I’m in relationship with at work or in my personal life.
Let me ask you a question: Do you ever find yourself spending too much time making up your own story about why someone did (or didn’t) do something? If it’s an employee or a team member, do you ever craft your own version of why they didn’t perform to your expectation, or why they didn’t show up on time, or why they said what they said?Do you do this in your personal relationships too? Anguishing over why someone didn’t respond, or why they acted a certain way, or why they did what they did?
If you’re a Fact Finder, like me, (here I go with my Kolbe language), you might do this a lot. I mean, no news is bad news when you have a penchant for having all the answers, right!? Lately I’ve realized I have many clients who are phenomenal at making up their own story about someone else’s situation when they don’t even have all the facts!
Is this resonating with you?
One of the great lessons I’m learning as an Executive Leadership Coach is that making up my own stories about things I don’t have all the information about is really counter-productive. In fact, making up my own story when I don’t have all the facts is the most emotionally damaging thing I do to myself and my relationships. And I’m starting to notice how often my striving, goal-oriented, focused clients, most of whom own small businesses and have teams that they lead and manage, do this, as well! Not only is this frustrating them, it’s also depleting their emotional and mental energy.
How does this impact our Leadership effectiveness?
Business owners, Team Leaders and even parents do this all the time! When someone does something we don’t like or we don’t understand, many of us masterfully start making up our own story about what’s going on with that other person! And what happens when you make up your own story about someone else’s situation? It causes problems! Sometimes it can actually break a relationship. I’ve seen business owners come close to losing valuable employees as a result of this impulse. And it’s devastating to witness.
I’ve been experiencing this a lot with my clients. During our coaching calls, I will hear my client go into story-telling mode about what their employee did or didn’t do and they seem to want to use our coaching time together analyzing the situation and building their own story about what’s really going on. This is very unproductive for my client! And perhaps even devastating to an otherwise healthy work relationship.
Here’s the deal: If someone does or says something you don’t understand, then find the courage to ask about it! Using your precious mental energy to tell their story using only your past experiences and information through the lens that you look through every day is going to get you in trouble. And if you are running a business or managing a team, you don’t have that time or emotional energy to waste.
Here is a truth I have learned when it comes to leadership: High performing leaders are very comfortable talking about uncomfortable things. And sometimes that includes confrontation or being direct by seeking information about something you don’t understand. And the result for mastering this art is a dyad of two people who better understand one another and can regain an alliance and a deeper understanding. Isn’t that what we’re really trying to achieve, anyhow? Even if you don’t agree with the other person’s perspective, at least you can begin to understand where the other person is coming from. We are all a product of where we come from and our past experiences, influenced by our values and belief systems. And when you get a group of people together and expect everyone to read each other’s minds…it just doesn’t work! We all need to use our mental energy for other more productive things, like doing our jobs!
Maybe this sounds a little like Communication 101 class, but it’s so fundamentally basic that I think sometimes we forget how important clear, intentional communication is in a relationship – especially a work relationship.
So how can you get more comfortable talking about uncomfortable things?
BE CURIOUS. Withhold judgement about others and simply be curious by asking powerful questions. This is actually a coaching structure that, when mastered, is incredibly powerful in any relationship. If you can find the courage to ask a question to someone about something you are curious about instead of making up your own story about why they did (or didn’t) do something, it opens up a lot of space for learning and relationship building.
Here’s an example of how to do this: John, a generally high performing team member, has had a habit of showing up 15 minutes late for the company meetings and everyone consistently waits on him. Rather than getting pissed off and judging John, or being angry at his blatant disrespect for not honoring the meeting time, you might pull John aside and get curious: “John, I notice you’ve been consistently late to our meetings, yet everyone else is always on time. Is everything ok?”
What you might discover is that the story you’ve started to craft about John, such as how disrespectful he is, or how disorganized he is, or any number of things you can pull out of your story about “late people”, is inaccurate and far from the truth. You might actually discover that John is fighting an illness that no one knows about and his morning routine has been a terrible challenge for him physically, and that it’s making it hard from him to get to work on time.
Or another example: A team member, Mary, is consistently not hitting her production goals and even though she is showing up for work every day, she is not carrying her load and keeping up with expectations.
Rather than spending hours with yourself trying to figure out how to motivate Mary, wondering if she is just not committed or if she simply isn’t cut out for this work, how about taking her out for coffee and being really direct and curious: “Mary I notice that you haven’t been hitting your targets lately, and that’s not like you. Are you feeling stuck? How can I support you?”
Maybe Mary has hit a roadblock in her learning. Perhaps she’s frustrated about something that’s going on with another team member. Maybe she’s completely disengaged, and has lost interest in the job. Either way, it’s not up to you to make up her story! It’s Mary’s story, and we have to be more focused leaders by holding space for staying curious about the people we lead and serve.
The real opportunity…
As leaders, the greatest gift I believe we can give others is our time and our genuine interest in their development and wellbeing. Sometimes that involves taking the lead and having straight conversations about what you are noticing. Simply noticing, and then being incredibly curious, takes the pressure off of you having to figure someone else’s situation out, and it honors the other person by not forcing your preconceived ideas or beliefs on them. Ultimately, you create an opportunity to develop that other person. My clients strive to be the best leaders and coaches they can be for their people, and I can see how simply mastering “being curious” rather than making up someone else’s story can set them free.
Give it a try, and perhaps you can use all that mental energy on other more purposeful things. Like running your business.
You want a better team? Be a better leader! Take a deep breath and make that leap – you don’t have to do it alone.
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