And How Is That Working For You?

“When we are unhappy with how things are turning out, we must change our behavior, for the way things are turning out is a result of the behaviors we are currently using.”

 It’s a simple assertion, one that is much simpler said than done. Why? Because we grasp hold of habitual ways of seeing, thinking, and doing with all the tenacity of a true believer. Even when these habits leave us falling short of what we want repeatedly and failing in areas of life that we deeply care about succeeding in, we cannot let go of them … at least that’s the way it seems. 

What’s the solution? It involves relational learning, which means learning in a relationship with another person. It’s a relationship within which we are awakened to our habits, presented with opportunities to make informed choices, and learn how to act on them. Now, you might ask, “Is that therapy or is that coaching?” That’s for another day. In either case it’s adaptive development. 

Not Another Theory of Change!

No, it’s a theory of learning, which is usually the most adaptive response to change, especially when the change concerns disappointing results. Learning concerns knowledge of (self, others, situation) and knowledge about (matters of fact methods, procedures), as well as skills to act from that knowledge. That is to say, what we’re talking about is the acquisition of accurate and useful knowledge, and relevant and effective skills. They prove to be accurate and effective when put to use in practice - they work! 

That sounds so neat and tidy, doesn’t it? But when we’re stuck, and when we’ve tried and tried to solve our problems, to figure things out, to learn, all without success, it does not look or feel very neat and tidy. We’re frustrated, discouraged, and our attitude and energy move in the negative direction. We know at some level it’s not because we’re stupid, but we can’t help feeling less able and smart. 

The thing we need to remember – phrased a bit differently than our opening quotation – is that what we have learned is not working. And it’s not simply not working, it is interfering with our ability to learn new ways of functioning. That’s a good definition of “self-limiting.” Therefore, the first thing we must do is to question and unlearn the stuff – thoughts, feelings, patterns of action – that are problematic. And keep in mind, that the learning we seek is situation specific. 

Our habits became automatic ways of navigating our social and practical environment because they worked. But what was enough there and then is obviously not the right approach here and now. So, where do we begin this learning process? We begin with a concrete description of a current situation that is not working. The situation that can be described as a “slice of time.” 

Situation Analysis

Tom is having trouble getting things done in his new role as team leader. Here’s the way he describes a specific example: We all arrive in a meeting room for a project review. I try to call the meeting to order and get things going, but others can’t stop their conversations. So, I put my foot down. But then everyone goes quiet and I can’t get people to be really engaged in figuring out the problems we need to solve.     

I asked Tom, “How did you interpret this situation as it played out?” His response was kind of rambling: I was pissed off, frustrated. They know me, and they know this is important work, so why don’t they give me a break. I would never have taken this job (promotion) to lead this group if I knew they were going to pull this kind of “stuff” (expletive deleted)! 

“So,” I asked, “what did you do?” He responded: It was like pulling teeth, but I just went directly to them with questions about their ideas and recommendations. We came out with something that was okay, but it was much more difficult than it needed to be. Afterward, I asked one of the people, Hallie, “What that was all about?” She said that they got carried away getting caught up on their holiday experiences, and then felt I was really in a bad mood.   

“So, Tom, did you get what you wanted?” His face flushed with frustration: Yes and no. That’s not the kind of leader I want to be. And we may have done okay with the work, but I don’t think we’ll do our best work that way. And I don’t like being seen in a negative light, you know, the bad mood thing.

Take Two 

I heard him, what he voiced and the feelings that were not spoken. “Well, how about if we go through this situation again and try to notice how it might work out differently the next time?” No surprise, Tom was all in. And as we processed the situation, we considered different ways we might interpret their behavior, and different actions he might have taken to get what he wanted from the meeting. 

We did this in the context of a trusting relationship. I even shared my personal sense of the “serious edge” that he may at times signal with his facial expressions. We discussed how that might arise from his intense worries about “getting it right” and “proving himself.” He discovered that if we could talk about these matters openly, that he could probably express his feeling more openly with his team too. 

The role is new. He wants to succeed. He wants to work together with the team as they always have, with some playful back-and-forth, but also with and real sense of pride in getting the job done. And it’s different figuring out how to do that as a leader. That’s what he did. They talked about it. He became less self-conscious about playing his role, calling the meeting to order without getting “cranky.”  

Situation Analysis: Take Two

In a world that thrives on action and problem solving, timeliness is prized. Adages like “don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” normalize an urgency to act with approximate accuracy and good-enough effectiveness. But what happens our situation analyses are rushed, episodic, and involve few if any "second takes?"

When a group of “cooler heads” prevail, their fact-based, analysis of problem situations or opportunities often succeed. Sound methods and practices for such analysis have been developed and are taught in business schools. Most rely on data gathering, quantitative analysis, and some sort of deliberation, scenario planning, and practical judgment.

Still, more than 50% of new businesses fail within two years, 40-60% of new hires depart the hiring company within 18 months, and the majority of process improvement initiatives and M&A investments fail to achieve their aims. So, our methods are not perfect, and anything that can improve their success deserves our attention, even if it stems from the “soft” science of psychology.

Situation Analysis & Particularity

In business, situation analysis is an established means of guiding judgment on strategic action and on vital tactical decisions. Here’s one definition of situation analysis:

The systematic collection and study of past and present data to identify trends, forces, and conditions with the potential to influence the performance of the business and the choice of appropriate strategies. The situation analysis is the foundation of the strategic planning process. The situation analysis includes an examination of both the internal factors (to identify strengths and weaknesses) and external factors (to identify opportunities and threats). It is often referred to by the acronym SWOT. (American Marketing Association)

What goes less noticed in business methods is the role of interpretation. Facts and data don’t really explain themselves. And models and theories intended for explaining things in general don't really explain this or that situation in particular. Particularity, after all, refers to unique, case-specific, qualities of an individual person, situation, or experience.

And it is interpretation that we rely on when seeking to understand the unique features and causal influences that explain something we wish to understand with particularity. In the field of action, we shape our strategy to this particularity. Particularity concerns the minute details “out there” that we might observe with a second “take.” It also consists in seeing them as other stakeholders see them.

We are among the stakeholders, aren’t we? So, particularity implies a meta-awareness of our own and others’ perceptions, thought, feelings, strivings, practical interests – these are the lenses through which we see the particulars that differentiate our situation. We do so by suspending judgment, loosening the grip of urgent drives and desires. We then see the situation as it really is, not as some mere objectivity, but as a multi-faceted relatum.

Particularity concerns the way a situation is given to us in experience, but it includes the other ways it might be given to us too. Thus, seeking an accurate and sufficient grasp of particulars in a specific situation involves a special rigor in seeing things. It gives us better insight into how what is seen may be relevant to the motivations, aspirations, and purposes of the stakeholders involved.

Eliciting Particularity

First, we must summarize the situation as we observe it to be. Let’s take an example of problematic change: The VP of Marketing for ABC Company informs our agency by email to halt all service delivery on a multi-media promotional initiative. The account executive, Eric, shares the news with his boss, and the request for information begins, “We can’t lose this business!”

That’s what happened. Is there more to the story? Probably, but Eric is having difficulty getting further information. So, how does he interpret the situation? The VP is playing it close to the vest, which is not characteristic of her. Eric is accountable for this as Q4 revenue: “My superiors don’t like bad news.” Thus, Eric asks the client if there’s anything he can do to keep the business - “issues we can resolve?”

The client says “no,” there’s no way it can be changed. After informing his boss, Eric is called into a meeting with senior management. He was anxious. Some of them were too. The COO broke the silence, “Look, this is an anchor client. We need to retain the revenue, but, even more, we need to retain the client. So, let’s see if we can sort this out.” His tone was calm.

He continued, “Tell me more about the situation, Eric.” This was enough to calm Eric a bit. His COO signaled to the group a norm of composure and care. Eric said that the client had gone quiet the past few weeks while Eric was spending his time trying to close 4th quarter sales. Then this news broke. They soon concluded that something had gone awry, but further pressuring Eric was not the answer.

They wanted was to retain the client, but their actions had served to neglect communications with the client. Historically, their business grew with this client as the trust and intimacy of the relationship had grown. What kept them in the inner circle of service providers was their direct relevance to the client’s priorities. These kinds of interpretations produced working hypotheses and next steps.

Take Two

Actions and strategies, including those for account management, emerge from a particularistic kind of situation analysis and planning. An essential fact about particulars is that they change. External factors change and affect factual particulars, and internal factors change that affect perceptions. We cannot know how these factors change and influence our client unless we “travel” with them.

That’s the true mark of intimacy. We know the clients with whom we have intimacy in their particularity as a company, as managers, and as people trying to thrive. A good situation analysis is a snapshot based on take-two perceptions and interpretations of the particulars that inform adaptive change for our clients and that inform our strategies and practices for serving them.

Mature Mind & Positive Influence

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In those moments when we feel least effective and most frustrated, and especially when this experience becomes chronic, we’re aware of how it steals our capacity to get things done. Something has happened and continues to happen in our mind. It's not working as well as we’d like it to. We’re exhausted, perhaps irritable or indifferent, but certainly not positively charged. Our thinking is dulled, our judgment is compromised, our imagination and repertoire of problem-solving skills seem to have left us. And it’s not just us; we seem unable to connect and influence others in any positive way. This is not what we want. We’re stuck. We want change. And change can happen. That’s what I discuss in my latest whitepaper.

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Are You Growing as a Leader?

Exciting Growth at the Intersection of Person and Role-Taking

Some of our most dramatic gains in leader development owe much to identity growth spurts, which occur in the course of facing new challenges. They are effortful, sometime even painful, breakthroughs that transform our ways of thinking, feeling, and relating. They’re occasioned by the felt demands of the roles we take. The demands are more than a call to action, they’re a call for adaptive learning about self, situation, and what we must do differently in order to thrive.      

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Are you or someone you care about at this intersection of growth? Its arrival is accompanied by feelings of exhilaration and exhaustion, high hopes and perilous fears. It usually includes a pervasive sense that much is at stake, and that we have a significant opportunity to make a difference. Beyond the elation over “upsides” lie a sobering burden of responsibility, often more felt than fully understood. What can we do to make the most of this opportunity and fulfill its responsibilities?      

Those are the questions I discuss in this article.  

The Effects of Challenge

From infancy forward, there is within each of us an inherent curiosity and striving to be, to explore, to experience, and to orient ourselves in our surrounding world. We do not do this alone; it’s always within a social context and in the company of others who reflect back to us what they see in us. With the best of parenting, teaching (school years), and supervision (in vocational life), we find encouragement in the responses of others as they recognize and affirm our insights and evolving competencies as persons.     

In that way, we become known to others and to ourselves as independent centers of awareness with a capacity for intelligent adaptive action. A growing sense of our personal potential to initiate purposive action (agency), and to do so in ways that genuinely express our interests and preferences (personality) constitute core elements of our identity (unique self). And as we cultivate a mature attunement to our normative framework of moral beliefs about what is good, right, and proper, self-identity deepens.     

Figure 1. The Challenge-Development Curve

Figure 1. The Challenge-Development Curve

This all occurs, of course, as we navigate the school years, post-secondary education, and early career experience. At some point, our challenges become less about individual task-oriented, practical abilities, especially as we aspire to manage and lead others. Then, challenges become more complex, our success becomes increasingly contingent upon the way we get work done through others. Cognitive, emotional, and relational aspects of working together co-determine our efficiency and effectiveness.   

Those who seek careers in management tend to be achievement oriented. Presenting them with new or bigger problems or opportunities will typically represent a powerful stimulus for creative-productive action. It will intensify their focus and efforts – cognitive, emotional, and practical. As illustrated in Figure 1, rising levels of challenge will stimulate learning and gains in our capacity to perform…that is, up to a point (A-B). Beyond the inflection point we not only observe diminishing returns but actual declines in our capacity to perform.

This downward spiral (decompensation) is usually the result of accumulated stress, strain, and fatigue. These effects can build insidiously, just as the boiling-the-frog metaphor suggests. Although it may feel we are suffering these effects privately, it is others who will often first notice their adverse impacts, and not just at work. It’s often those closest to us who witness our unvarnished emotional reactions and our insistent assertions that we’ll get a handle on it.   

Plotting Our Position on the Curve

As you scan Table 1, I am confident that some of the “warning signs” will be familiar, because you’ve been there yourself or because you’ve observed them in others. Most of us with confidence and a track record of “playing through pain” will rationalize, minimize, or deny feeling stuck. It will be embarrassing to acknowledge that our coping efforts are failing, that our struggles are affecting others. In the best of circumstances this defensive routine is shorter in duration, it’s almost never nonexistent.    

Table 1. Warning Signs of an Approaching Inflection Point

Table 1. Warning Signs of an Approaching Inflection Point

The most important reason to specify the warning signs of an approaching inflection point is to prompt attentiveness. By noticing these signs earlier, we are more able to come to grips with them in a timely and effective manner. Timely intervention, as illustrated in Figure 2, requires a “reflective pause” and perspective-taking at just the time when our focus is narrowing and intensifying. Feelings of desperation are beginning to activate defenses and close off our access to adaptive avenues of action.     

Figure 2. A Multi-Curve Model of Adaptive Growth

Figure 2. A Multi-Curve Model of Adaptive Growth

However, with timely intervention, we can change the trajectory of the curve. In fact, we can perhaps facilitate a “jump” to another curve, achieving a more transformative quality of adaptive change and growth. Doing this requires the counter-intuitive use of the reflective pause mentioned above.     

You will notice prior to the inflection points B, D, and F in Figure 2 are reflection points B1, D1, and F1. There is a downward dip in the new curve of adaptive development. It represents the pause, pulling our shoulders back from “wheel” for a moment. There is also an outward shift to the right, which indicates capacity growth that is will span even higher levels of challenge.   

These are intervention points. The pause provides us with an opportunity to assess the felt the demands of our role afresh. It allows us to appreciate how those demands impinge upon us. In what aspects of the challenge are we finding ourselves overwhelmed, lacking the know-how or capacity to cope?

Although our individual reflection upon these matters may produce valuable insights and possibilities for action, it is the feedback from others, our stakeholders, that will prove especially helpful. It will help us appreciate what only they can see and report from their role and their experience of our presence and behavior. (For more on the vital importance of feedback, see my recent article on the Johari Window.) With increased self-awareness and other-awareness, we are better able to target key gap themes.    

Coaching helps us acquire these data, actively and fruitfully process them for insight, and then translate those insights into work-relevant, role-specific development themes. In such “processing” the coach is there to offer a sufficiently tough quality of “love” (self-discovery & encouragement) to ensure that we formulate realistic ideas about what we need to do differently, where to start, and how to include and involve others in the process. After all, why ask for feedback if we’re not going to invite constructive engagement, right?   

Conclusions

There’s much more to the process of leader identity development that occurs in the course of adult role-taking. And there is more to the art of being there for those we coach through this vital kind of personal growth. Both merit additional attention. However, one further thought I would leave you with is that of an “Arc of Virtue.” It’s the arc traced by the upward line of movement that intersects the origin of each new adaptive development curve in Figure 2.    

I use these graphical illustrations because I hope they can help us better picture the constellation of forces at work in adult development. Knowing these graphics are based upon well-established theory and empirical research, should give us reason for optimism. But to bolster that point, let me share an even more fundamental truth: It is that none of this is out of reach for any of us unless we choose to believe it is beyond us. Don’t make that mistake!

Do You Really Want to Manage?

It’s a common question among early-career professionals, those in the first 5-7 years of their career. But it also arises later for mid-career adults who’ve had a bit of supervisory or managerial experience. And beyond its specific focus on managerial versus non-managerial career options, it symbolizes a deeper inquiry about what we want in life, what motivates us and why, deeper more existential questions.

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So, perhaps “want” is the most important word in my title. It points directly to the appetitive dimension of human nature and motivation. And when we consider the more nuanced differences between want and desire, and seeking and striving, we discover the source, meaning, and power of such aspirational themes, how they shape our identity, influence our actions, and produce joy or perpetual restlessness.  

Simple Definitions Reveal Complexity

About Wants

To want is to desire, but in a specific sense. It’s a simpler, object-specific desire for something we do not have. Wants arise and are satisfied or not through our acquisition of the wanted object, i.e., chocolate, a car, a pay raise, a promotion, a date, tickets to a concert – things that are external to us as persons. Wants come and go, one after another. They’re discrete felt needs of limited duration.  

About Desires

Desires that live beyond the satiation of any one want, that go to our sense adequacy and well-being as a person… Well, that’s a different thing. It’s the full and proper meaning of desire as distinct from want. Its aim is to extinguish deeply felt needs for completion. Its intensity is a craving to fill a hole within us. Its intensity can become desperate, obsessive, especially as it grows outside conscious awareness. 

Risks of Confusion

It is in this sense that in Buddhism and in some Western religions, desire can be seen as the root of all suffering and moral failure. It is in this sense also that desire can lead to inauthentic living. For rather than focusing on being, we surrender to an anxious, acquisitive, alienating mode of life called having. We mistake parts for the whole of life. We mistake stuff for growth and self-actualization.  

So, want and desire run amok can lead away from love, virtue, growth, and happiness. But they’re also inherent to our nature. They energize our being and need not run amok, lead to harm and unhappiness. When we attend to and notice the wants and desires that define our appetite and actions, we can choose to examine them with an attitude of curiosity. We can learn!  

Wisdom from Reflection

Something as ostensibly practical and compartmentalized as the question of whether or not I really want a career in management can lead to more fundamental questions. Notice how these questions arise from troubled feelings, in moments of suffering. Wants and desire are felt and acted on long before they consciously or cognitively known. Their life predates our verbal and cognitive abilities. 

Some Classic Wisdom

The words of a famous 17th century philosopher, Spinoza, are relevant here: “The endeavor, wherewith everything endeavors to persist in its own being, is nothing else but the actual essence of the thing in question.” (From his Ethics) Our vital endeavors to be can run amok. We are imperfect creatures. and we are moved by two kinds of emotion according to Spinoza, those linked to actions and passions.          

Actions are purposive endeavors, conscious and guided by considered judgment. Passions are aroused or excited by things and experience external to us. They may arouse positive feelings, elevated emotions of wonder, compassion, and love. However, when they operate without the mediation of mind, they can also arouse baser fears and reactive acts of avoidance or aggression.  

Practical Take-Aways

It is our relationship to the feelings that arise in life that is most vital. Thus, asking what I want and why I want it raises to consciousness the aims and meaning that our strivings hold for us. What is it that seems so important? What is it that this desire signals about me and what I need? In this way, some desires are extinguished (as false goods), others reframed as wants or transformed into something less intense.  

We now more easily appraise the relative importance of the values that underlie our appetitive strivings. We gain emotional freedom and make informed choices about life goals and career goals. Our strivings are aligned – and they’ll need to be repeatedly aligned – with aims of virtue and happiness. Always more difficult in reality than in thought, and always made easier in conversation with those we trust.