Many of my coaching clients and former students face challenges in their work environment--conflicts with colleagues, intense pressure to succeed, various forms of dysfunction in the culture. But many of these people are leaders who have some ability to change that culture (and, in some cases, who bear responsibility for creating it). What if you're not in a position to change the culture? And what if it's not just a dysfunctional environment but a toxic one?
I've talked recently with several people in this situation--they're new to the organization, senior enough to interact with top leadership (for better and for worse), but junior enough that their ability to drive change is limited. Not all of their organizations are truly toxic, but they're all less-than-healthy environments. Some common themes from these conversations, work with past clients, and my own experience with dysfunctional cultures suggest a set of survival strategies:
1) Serenity Now!
Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer is a cliché because it's true, and the quickest way to burn out in a dysfunctional environment is to fail to recognize what can't be changed. A less quick, but equally certain, path to burnout is to passively accept all dysfunction and make no effort to bring about change. It's essential to chart a path between these unhealthy alternatives, and to do this we have to take some manageable risks to determine what we can and can't change: Start small and scale up.
In a truly toxic environment--one that's dysfunctional by design--meaningful change is nearly impossible because the dysfunction is working to someone's benefit. But even when we can't change a single thing in our environment, we can still control how we respond. I don't mean to compare a toxic workplace to a concentration camp, but I'm reminded that Viktor Frankl, who was in Auschwitz while Niebuhr was composing his prayer, wrote in Man's Search for Meaning, "When we are no longer able to change a situation...we are challenged to change ourselves." [p 115]
One of the hallmarks of a dysfunctional environment is its ability to trigger a threat response, and when we can't change the organization (or leave it), we need to develop the ability to remain calm in the face of these triggers, to regulate our negative emotions effectively when we're triggered, and to find healthy and efficient ways to de-escalate those emotions. (And coaching can help.)
2) Boundaries, Boundaries, Boundaries
Dysfunctional organizations have a boundless appetite for employees' time and do nothing to encourage people to stop working. (Truly toxic cultures actively induce feelings of guilt at the mere suggestion that a healthy life might include activities other than work.)
The dilemma is that most professionals actively collude in these dynamics. I'm certainly a workaholic, albeit a happy one, and almost all of my clients are as well. We love our work--even when we struggle with our jobs--and the idea of "work/life balance" strikes us as undesirable even if it were attainable.
A solution lies in the power of boundaries--a concept I find much more useful and actionable than "balance." Because we're so driven to work--and because even the best organizations will exploit this drive--it's up to us to prevent work from taking over our lives, and good boundaries are the only way to make this possible. As my former colleague Michael Gilbert wrote in 2008,
Boundaries keep things in their place. Balance suggests the same amount of two things on either side of a scale. Boundaries keep one of those things from oozing past the edge of its platter and taking over the other side... Just as functional membranes (letting the right things through and keeping the wrong things out) facilitate the healthy interaction of the cells of our bodies, so do functional personal boundaries facilitate the healthy interaction of the various parts of our lives. Bad boundaries lead to either being overwhelmed or withdrawal. Good boundaries lead to wholeness and synergy.
Good boundaries are even more important when we're working in a dysfunctional or toxic environment. We need physical boundaries that allow us to create distance between us and our work (which includes not only the office itself but also all our professional tools and artifacts--laptops, tablets, phones, papers, everything.)
We need temporal boundaries that allow us to spend time undisturbed by work obligations. Note that I'm talking not about balance but about boundaries; the amount of undisturbed time we can create for ourselves will vary--and may be quite small--but what matters is that we create and maintain a functional boundary around that time.
And we need psychic boundaries that allow us to stop thinking about work so that we can actually make effective use of the boundaries noted about. (I'm not suggesting this is easy--quite the contrary. As I've noted before, not thinking about something is difficult, particularly when we're stressed or distracted.)
3) Find Validation Elsewhere
A hallmark of a dysfunctional organization is a failure to fully recognize and validate peoples' contributions. (A truly toxic culture goes a step further and actively invalidates its members.) The challenge this poses for people like my clients and students (and for me) is that we're accustomed to performing well and being recognized for it, and when we find ourselves in an environment where this equation no longer holds, we can be slow to adapt. We assume that if we just work a little harder, do just a little better, we'll eventually be recognized for our efforts.
But this mindset is a trap--the dysfunctional organization isn't going to change, and the longer it takes us to accept this, the more we strive in vain for validation that won't be forthcoming. This dynamic can be particularly acute in elite institutions such as highly competitive schools or desirable companies. Membership in these institutions boosts our status, but our awareness that membership can be revoked creates a sense of status anxiety that makes us strive even harder.
The key is ensuring that we're being validated elsewhere in our lives. We need to be fully seen and acknowledged by people whose opinions matter to us and who are in a position to recognize our contributions. This involves not only cultivating those relationships, of course, but also being direct about asking for positive feedback--a step that many of us find daunting. And ultimately it means validating ourselves, recognizing that even when external validation is forthcoming it's inevitably insufficient as a sustainable source of happiness and fulfillment.
4) Adopt a Growth Mindset...
...and remember the fundamental attribution error. A dysfunctional organization views setbacks as the result of employees' inadequacies while failing to consider situational factors, resulting in a lack of safety and a paralyzing aversion to risk. (A truly toxic organization actively seeks to shift blame for setbacks from high-status leaders to lower-status employees, no matter who's truly at fault.)
Research by Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck suggests that a "growth mindset" is a critical source of strength and resilience:
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They're wrong.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.
By adopting a growth mindset, we're better able to maintain a sense of equanimity in the face of mistakes and setbacks. This isn't to suggest that we ignore our failings; on the contrary, a growth mindset allows us to devote more attention to our mistakes and learn from them more thoroughly wihout becoming obsessed or paralyzed by them.
The challenge in a dysfunctional culture is that the organization won't accept blame for any setbacks, even--and especially--when the culture itself is a contributing factor. So it's essential not to collude in this process and to remember the fundamental attribution error, a widespread cognitive bias that I first learned in business school from the outstanding Roberto Fernandez as:
Ascribing causality to personal characteristics when causality actually lies with the situation.
While it's important to take responsibility for our own contributions to an organizational setback, it's equally important to recognize the situational factors at play. By integrating this perspective with a growth mindset, we can act accountably and with integrity without undermining ourselves.
5) Speak Up
Finally, when we're struggling in a dysfunctional culture, we need to talk about it with someone; we need to speak up. I'm fully aware that speaking up often involves some risk, but so does staying silent. And the benefits of speaking up are manifold. When we speak up to a colleague, we create a safe space for ourselves within the organization, even if it's just a temporary one, and we may identify a long-term ally.
And by speaking up to anyone at all, even someone outside the organization, we accomplish two key steps: First, we affirm our right to tell our story, even if it upsets the conventional narrative. Particularly when we're enmeshed in a dysfunctional culture in an elite institution, there can be a large gap between the way our life appears to others and the way it feels to us, and it's important not to let the image disconfirm our actual experience.
Second, by speaking up we remind ourselves that we have agency and choice, even if it may not feel like it at times, and taking the small step of telling our story encourages us to take larger, bolder steps from there. We might feel emboldened to make some changes within our sphere of influence. We might seek to expand our influence by talking more directly and candidly with those around us. We might even decide to exercise our choice to leave.
If you're working in a dysfunctional environment and you found this post helpful, you might want to explore my posts on self-coaching. They're not intended to replace the experience of working with a personal coach, but my hope is that they help people who are working with a coach get even more out of the experience and provide people who lack the opportunity to work with a coach with a framework for a self-directed experience. (Note that they're also very much a work-in-progress that I'll continue to update.)
Photo by John Morgan. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
An opportunity presents itself. It's intriguing, but you're not sure if you should take it. So frame it this way:
1) What will this allow me to do that I can't do now? (And what am I willing to give up in exchange?)
2) What will this prevent me from doing that I would miss? (And what am I not willing to give up?)
Photo by Petros Pevel. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
The Leadership Case for Self-Coaching
Helping people learn to self-coach is central to my approach to coaching. This isn't a noble ideal; it's a result of the fact that I see my clients and students for just 1% of their working hours--the remaining 99% of the time they're coaching themselves through every decision and interaction, and my effectiveness as a coach is reflected in their effectiveness at self-coaching.
A similar dynamic exists in almost all organizations today, especially in fields comprised of knowledge workers, in Peter Drucker's phrase. Knowledge workers rarely, if ever, perform a task under the direct supervision of a leader or manager; time spent together by superiors and subordinates is almost always dedicated to reviews of work already completed or planning for work yet to be done. This reflects the impact of knowledge work on traditional org chart relationships and workplace hierarchies. As Drucker writes in Management Challenges of the 21st Century,
[K]nowledge workers are not subordinates; they are "associates." For, once beyond the apprentice stage, knowledge workers must know more about their job than their boss does--or else they are no good at all. In fact, that they know more about their job than anybody else in the organization is part of the definition of knowledge workers...
To be sure, these associates are "subordinates" in that they depend on
the "boss" when it comes to being hired or fired, promoted, appraised
and so on. But in his or her own job the superior can perform only if
these so-called subordinates take responsibility for educating
him or her... In turn, these "subordinates" depend on the superior for
direction. They depend on the superior to tell them what the "score"
is. [pp 18, 20]
Because knowledge workers require (and desire) little or no direct supervision and typically know more about the work to be done than their leaders and managers, effective leadership has come to look a lot like coaching--which is one of the primary reasons that the new business school curriculum we've rolled out at Stanford over the past decade puts so much emphasis on coaching, interpersonal skills and experiential learning.
And just as my effectiveness as a coach is expanded dramatically by my ability to help others self-coach, leaders can enhance their effectiveness by helping people learn to coach themselves. "Coaching" doesn't need to be a formal activity that occurs between a superior and a subordinate in specially designated conversations, but rather can be a means by which knowledge workers guide themselves through day-to-day activities and over the span of their careers.
Self-coaching can't replace the experience of working directly with a personal coach like myself or being actively coached by a manager, but those opportunities are time- and resource-intensive experiences that are constrained by an organization's budget for coaching and a leader's availability. Effective self-coaching can augment an organization's investment in coaching by outside professionals and internal leaders alike. Further, helping people self-coach is a natural fit with knowledge work's emphasis on self-management and flat hierarchies.
So what does this look like in practice? Here are three principles to bear in mind:
1. Meta-Work (Meta-What?)
Helping someone learn to self-coach primarily means coaching them in a transparent way, so they're aware of the steps being taken and can replicate them later, both on their own and with others--a process I refer to as "meta-work." As I wrote in 2006, meta-work is any effort we undertake in order to work more effectively. Meta-work occurs whenever we step back from a task to ask ourselves "Why do we do this task this way?" or even "Why do we do this task at all?"
In a self-coaching context, meta-work involves leaving time at the end of a conversation to debrief the conversation itself and understand why it was helpful (or why it wasn't), and identifying specific aspects of the leader's coaching approach (both in any given conversation and over the arc of the relationship) so that the other person can apply those techniques on their own. Note that this isn't extra work added to the leader's plate--it's work to be done by the other person with the leader. Our responsibility as a leader is to manage the agenda so that the immediate issues under discussion don't consume all the available time.
2. More Questions, Less Advice
Our first helping impulse is typically to offer advice, and this is particularly true when we're in a leadership role because our mental models of leadership often involve "knowing the answers." And at times effective coaching requires providing some direct advice or feedback. But it's much more useful in a coaching context to ask questions, especially at the outset. As longtime MIT professor Edgar Schein writes in Helping,
The first intervention must always be what I am calling humble inquiry, even if the inquiry is merely careful observation and listening in the first few minutes of the encounter. The critical point is not to stereotype the situation even if it looks like something familiar. [pp 66-7]
Schein notes that the first trap for a "helper" in any helping relationship is dispensing wisdom prematurely; it's essential to defer offering advice or answering questions and shift the responsibility for providing answers back to the person seeking help.
The rationale here is threefold: First, we're more likely to follow up on ideas that we generate ourselves; even when we're accept advice we believe to be sound, we're less likely to act on it. Second, by definition knowledge workers have more information at their disposal than their leaders, and questions will help surface that information more effectively than advice. And finally, while providing answers may make us feel useful in the short run, over time it inhibits the other person's ability to find answers for themselves; asking questions is a much more effective way to help others learn to self-coach.
3. Empathy, Empathy, Empathy
Grant McCracken, an anthropologist who consults to corporate clients, makes the strategic case for empathy in Chief Culture Officer:
In the twentieth century, the corporation was so large it created its own weather system. General Motors, IBM and Coca-Cola could shape the world to their will. And in this world it was enough to be really analytically smart. Now we have to know the world outside the corporation. We have to know worlds alien to our own. We have to know worlds that proceed according to other assumptions. Without empathy, these worlds are opaque to us. [p 128]
This is even more important at the interpersonal level; without empathy--the ability not only to understand another person's thoughts but also to vicariously experience their emotions--their world remains alien and opaque to us. Empathy makes coaching possible.
Another key to the importance of empathy can be found in the work of Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston and best-selling author who's spent years studying the topics of vulnerability, courage, worthiness and shame. Brown defines shame as "the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging." Empathy, in turn, is "the antidote to shame."
The relevance for leaders in a coaching context is that almost everyone seeking help is experiencing some form of shame, even if it's just mild embarrassment--and the more serious the problem, the deeper the shame. Feeling and expressing empathy is critical to helping the other person defuse their shame or embarrassment and begin thinking creatively about solutions.
But note that our habitual expressions of empathy can sometimes be counterproductive. Michael Sahota, a coach in Toronto who works with groups of software developers and product managers, offers a concise synopsis of Brown's work on the traps we fall into when trying to express empathy: "My problem's bigger," "Look on the bright side," and leaping to problem-solving while ignoring the emotions generated by the problem.
The solution is to recognize these responses as traps, catch ourselves before we fall into them and instead truly empathize: Start with inquiry--see above, work to understand the other person's situation and--even more importantly--experience their feelings. We may not identify with their particular situation, and it may not evoke the same feelings in us, but we've surely had those feelings at some point. Tap into them and find a useful way to share them. All this is easy to write about and hard to do, but it's worth noting that recent research indicates empathy can be learned.
The ultimate value from a self-coaching perspective is that people who are met with empathy begin to feel empathy for themselves, a critical step in the process of effectively analyzing and learning from our mistakes.
More on Self-Coaching:
Engaging Ourselves: Consistent self-coaching starts with self-engagement, which is both a fundamental attitude toward ourselves and an ongoing dialogue.
Goal-Setting: The goals we set for ourselves have a significant influence on our performance; that said, goals can support our growth and development, and they can also get in the way.
Self-Awareness: I define self-awareness as both a heightened in-the-moment perception of our physiological and emotional responses and a growing understanding of who we are as individuals based on those responses.
Taking Action: The changes that occur in a self-coaching process take the form of a series of moments when we intervene and act--or choose not to act.
Values and Vision: Self-coaching occurs in a context defined by our personal values and our vision for ourselves. (And when someone's values or vision diverge from that of the leader or their organization, it's critical to
Accepting Ourselves: Most high-achieving knowledge workers are their own worst critics, and a key coaching role leaders can play is helping people feel a sense of self-compassion.
Photo by crabchick. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
I was recently asked to help a team prepare to tackle some challenging work more effectively. I was motivated to say yes for professional and personal reasons, but I didn't fully think through the necessary conditions for success, and I made some critical errors in planning and delivery. In a word, I failed.
It wasn't a complete failure--I'm confident that some learning occurred--but I certainly failed to live up to my own standards for success. I've reflected on what I could have done differently, and I've learned a lot--but perhaps the most valuable thing I've learned is the extent to which I've developed a growth mindset. As Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck notes,
In a fixed mindset, people believe their basic qualities, like their intelligence or talent, are simply fixed traits. They spend their time documenting their intelligence or talent instead of developing them. They also believe that talent alone creates success—without effort. They're wrong.
In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work--brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.
The relevance here is that I'm not interpreting this failure as a character flaw or a fundamental inability to do good work. I'm fully aware that I take on projects like this all the time, and most of them turn out quite successfully. This isn't to say that I'm ducking responsibility for my failure or ignoring it in any way. I'm very clear about the mistakes I made and what I'll do differently going forward.
I'm reminded that in 2011 Jonah Lehrer reviewed a study by Michigan State's Jason Moser that applied Dweck's concept of mindset while assessing the neurological processes involved in learning from mistakes:
It turned out that those subjects with a growth mindset were significantly better at learning from their mistakes... Most interesting, though, was the EEG data, which demonstrated that those with a growth mindset generated a much larger [error positivity] signal, indicating increased attention to their mistakes… What’s more, this increased...signal was nicely correlated with improvement after error, implying that the extra awareness was paying dividends in performance. Because the subjects were thinking about what they got wrong, they learned how to get it right...
Moser's study suggests that a growth mindset allows us to pay more attention to our mistakes because we're less upset when confronted with the evidence of those mistakes, which allows us to study them more closely and learn more as a result. In the case of my own recent experience, the outcome is that I'm able to calmly assess my failure, learn from it and move on. I'm disappointed, to be sure, but I'm not upset about it in a way that might have negatively affected other projects or aspects of my life.
By no means am I suggesting that I've mastered this process--it doesn't take much work to envision a failure that would be extremely upsetting. But at the same time it's worth noting that the work I've done over the years has resulted in a greater sense of resilience and an increased capacity to face up to--and learn from--my failures.
Photo by Mikel Ortega. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
Whitney Johnson and Tara Mohr recently co-authored Women Need to Realize Work Isn't School, a powerful call to action containing five straightforward guidelines that challenge women to re-think their approach to professional success:
1. Figure out how to challenge and influence authority.
2. Prepare, but also learn how to improvise.
3. Find effective forms of self-promotion.
4. Welcome a less proscribed, full of surprise, career path.
5. Go for being respected, not just liked.
It's a brilliant piece of writing, and I intend to refer to it regularly in my work with clients and students at Stanford (where today the MBA Class of 2012 is just 39% women).
I want to augment Johnson and Mohr's perspective with two points: First, while I firmly agree that these five issues affect women more often and more severely than men, they certainly affect men as well. In my own professional development I've wrestled with each of these issues, and while I had an easier path as a man, it was nevertheless an intense struggle. (And it still is--I'm not suggesting that I've permanently resolved these issues for myself, just that I've addressed them and made what feels like meaningful progress over the years.)
And as I reflect on my male clients and MBA students, my sense is that every one of them is coping with one or more of these issues. From my perspective Johnson and Mohr have identified a critical set of universal challenges we all face in professional life, and they're shining a necessary spotlight on the unique difficulties faced by women in surmounting them.
Second, while these strategies point out the ways in which women can often undermine themselves and suggest useful alternatives, my experience as a coach tells me that simply knowing what we should do is rarely sufficient motivation on its own. In order to take effective action, we have to acknowledge and address the emotions that get stirred up by the prospect of doing so.
Any of us--women and men--who wrestle with the issues above can use Johnson and Mohr's call to action as a starting point to begin to understand the mental models that hold us back. And yet I suspect that sustained progress will depend on our willingness to understand ourselves at an even deeper level--for example, how our emotions affect our reasoning and decision-making or our performance under stress.
When we find ourselves acting in opposition to Johnson and Mohr's guidelines, it's likely that emotional factors are at play. Habitually deferring to authority, failing to improvise, rejecting appropriate credit for our performance, turning down surprise opportunities, focusing on being liked while failing to command respect--these are all professional missteps with a profound emotional dimension to them. Even as we're making such a misstep, we know it's the wrong thing to do, but somehow it feels better, safer, less risky to make the suboptimal choice.
So once our awareness has been raised and we know what we should do, our fundamental struggle in addressing these issues may be acknowledging and overcoming the anxiety, the embarrassment, the shame, the fear that well up when we contemplate taking that bold step. This is the complex and difficult work of self-coaching: engaging ourselves, understanding ourselves, and ultimately accepting ourselves even as we strive to do better.
Photo by Renato Ganoza. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
We know it's going to be a difficult conversation because we keep putting it off. We know it's going to be difficult because we feel unsettled when we think about it. We know it's going to be difficult because we're not sure it's going to end well. What could we do to make it easier and increase the likelihood of success?
I recently wrote about how we can alternately connect with or control others in the process of managing a difficult relationship. Many of the connecting and controlling strategies we might employ involve initiating a difficult conversation or behaviors we might exhibit during such a conversation, such as active listening or expressing anger.
In Part 2 of this essay I'll talk more about those in-the-moment behaviors and the internal dynamics that support (or undermine) them, but first I want to reflect on what we might call setting the table: tactical steps and external factors to consider before initiating a difficult conversation.
In my work as a coach I regularly help my clients and MBA students at Stanford prepare for any number of conversations like this: firing an employee who's not working out, sharing critical feedback with a close colleague, pushing back against an unreasonable superior, having a heart-to-heart with a friend who's struggling. I see five key dimensions to difficult conversations--Relationship, Timing, Duration, Place and Space--and within each one there are multiple questions we can ask ourselves in order to prepare:
Who is this person to me, and who am I to them? What is our status relative to each other, both formally and informally? What authority or influence do I have over them? What authority or influence do they have over me? How will these factors affect my invitation (or my request or my command) to speak with this person?
Are we engaged in an ongoing dialogue, or will this conversation be something new for us? How will that affect their response to the conversation? (And how do I want this conversation to impact the relationship? Deepen it? Challenge it? End it?)
When should the conversation occur? What time of day? What day of the week? What other time horizons merit consideration? (And am I rushing things to get it over with, or dragging my feet in the hope that the issue will magically be resolved before I need to deal with it?)
What will I and the other person be doing immediately before and immediately after the conversation? What timing will allow both myself and the other person to be in the best possible frame of mind for this conversation?
What if the other person initiates the conversation before I expect it to occur? What are the pros and cons of deferring? What are the pros and cons of seizing the moment? (And if I choose to defer, how can I do so gracefully? If I choose to seize the moment, what do I want to be most mindful of in that moment?)
How much time should I allot for the conversation? (And is that a realistic assessment, or is that how much time I hope it will take?)
Do either of us have a hard stop at the end of this conversation? Do we need to keep track of time? If so, can I share that responsibility with the other person, or is it mine alone? What tools might be available--a phone, a watch, a clock? (And how much of a buffer should I leave between the figural "end" of the conversation and the literal moment either of us will need to move on to our next obligation?)
What if the conversation goes much better (or worse) than I expect? How good (or bad) will it have to be for me to ignore my schedule in order to continue the conversation?
Where should the conversation take place? Would a formal setting like an office or a sit-down restaurant provide some useful social constraints, or would it feel too stifling? Would an informal setting like a cafe or at home be helpfully relaxing, or would it feel too unbounded? If there's a location in which this conversation would normally take place, will that predictability be comforting or stultifying? (And should it be on my turf, or their turf, or on neutral ground?)
What social setting would be optimal? How much privacy will we need? Will the presence of other people be helpful or distracting?
What other environmental factors might be in play? Will any visual distractions be in my line of sight or theirs? Will ambient noise affect the conversation? Will there be any physical discomforts that could make it hard to focus? (And if any of these factors change in the middle of the conversation, what am I prepared to do to deal with them?)
How should we be oriented toward each other? Should we be across a table, or next to each other, or on adjacent sides? Should there even be a table? (And should we even be seated? What would it be like to hold the conversation while taking a walk together?)
What proximity is optimal, given the relationship and our respective preferences for personal space? How close is too close? How far is too far? Would I be better served by increasing or decreasing that distance? (And would it be comforting or inappropriate to touch the other person? If it would be comforting, am I prepared to reach out to them?)
Perhaps the most important step in setting the table for a difficult conversation is recognizing the value--and the legitimacy--of this form of preparation. In some cases we're so distracted by the challenge of even having the conversation that we fail to consider the many ways in which we might prepare, and it's helpful to simply pause and remind ourselves of our options before we initiate the conversation.
But at a deeper level we may feel that it's somehow illegitimate to prepare in this way. We may feel that we lack the authority to influence these factors, or we may feel that such details are too minute to worry about, or we may feel that "staging" a conversation in this way detracts from its authenticity. And that's a good point at which to pause before Part 2 of this essay, which will discuss the internal and emotional aspects of preparing for a difficult conversation.
Photo by Dinner Series. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
The ability to be aware of--and influence--what we're thinking about is a critical self-coaching skill. We need to focus our attention on what's important and devote less of it to what's irrelevant, a task that's more difficult when we're stressed or distracted. And yet efforts to actively suppress thoughts can actually be counterproductive--so what CAN we do?
Harvard psychologist Daniel Wegner is known for his work on mental control, among other topics, and in response to the question, "How do people control their own minds?" he writes:
The simple strategy of directing attention can often be helpful, as people can stop thoughts, concentrate, improve their moods, relax, fall asleep, and otherwise control their mental states just by trying to direct their thoughts. These strategies of mental control can sometimes backfire, however, producing not only the failure of control but the very mental states we are trying to avoid. [Emphasis mine]
Wegner's insights on mental control emerged from his research on thought suppression, a concept he illustrates with the image of a white bear, inspired by a line from Dostoyevsky: "Try to pose for yourself this task: not to think of a polar bear, and you will see that the cursed thing will come to mind every minute." Wegner writes:
People who are prompted to try not to think about a white bear while they are thinking out loud will tend to mention it about once a minute... It seems that many of us are drawn into what seems a simple task, to stop a thought, when we want to stop thinking of something because it is frightening, disgusting, odd, inconvenient, or just annoying. And when we succumb to that initial impulse to stop, the snowballing begins. We try and fail, and try again, and find that the thought is ever more insistent for all our trying.
Why does this matter so much? Neuroscientist and psychologist Ian Robertson offers one very practical reason in his book Mind Sculpture:
We have to inhibit the billions of bits of irrelevant information assailing our senses in order to concentrate on the fragments of information which are crucial for us at a particular point in time.
This difficulty in suppressing the irrelevant causes particular problems with driving in older people. Whereas older people are more vigilant, careful and generally less error prone, they tend to make more mistakes at busy road junctions. At such complicated traffic intersections, everyone--young and old--is faced with a barrage of lights, signals and speeding streams of traffic. Some of this information is critically important for deciding when and what to do next, while much of it is irrelevant. For instance, the roaring trucks on the motorway overhead may be noisy and intimidating, but they...are quite irrelevant to the taks of managing to turn here. A young driver will be much better able to "screen out" this irrelevant distraction than an older driver, and so will be better able to focus attention on the lights and traffic which are important for surviving this particular turn. [pp 114-15]
My goal here isn't to promote safer driving among the aged (although as a 45-year-old who logs more than 300 miles most weeks, perhaps it should be). These issues have relevance in a much broader context: All of us, young and old, drivers and pedestrians, face the interpersonal equivalent of a busy intersection at work almost every day.
We're in a fast-paced meeting, for example, with a full agenda, allies and adversaries around the table, and massive amounts of information (both literal data and emotional signals) flying around the room. How do we focus our attention in order to achieve our goals most effectively?
As Robertson notes, inhibition is crucial here--wasting attention on the equivalent of a noisy but irrelevant truck roaring overhead could result in an ill-timed turn. However, as Wegner notes, we can't simply compel ourselves to ignore such distractions, or we actually risk becoming fixated on them. And if we're stressed, or tired (or just getting older), it'll be even more difficult to focus our attention where it's needed most.
So what do we do? In October 2011 health journalist Lea Winerman covered a presentation by Wegner at the annual convention of the American Psychological Association, in which he described several effective strategies for mental control.
In-the-moment, Wegner recommends that we 1) minimize multi-tasking, which diminishes our cognitive load, frees up finite working memory and increases our ability to focus, or 2) identify an "absorbing distractor" that will prevent us from becoming fixated on a more problematic focal point.
Over time, Wegner recommends that we build our capacity to resist distraction in the following ways: 1) commit to address unwanted thoughts at some designated time--as Winerman notes, chronic worriers who set aside 30 minutes a day during which they were free to worry experienced less anxiety during the rest of their day, or 2) practice meditation and mindfulness techniques.
A personal note on that last strategy: Although I've found meditation difficult at times, I persist in the practice because my own experience is consistent with Wegner's recommendation. For me meditation isn't a means to some sort of blissed-out, stress-free state--it's a workout, and a very hard one some days. My (utterly simple) practice is inspired by Jon Kabat-Zinn: Get still, notice what I'm thinking about (and how it makes me feel), let go of that thought (and those emotions) and bring my attention back to what it feels like to breathe. Within seconds, I'm thinking about something else again, and the cycle repeats itself over and over for 15 minutes. Not easy, and not particularly fun--as I said, it's a workout--but I'm exercising my capacity for self-awareness and my ability to direct attention, and after nearly two years of ongoing practice I do feel more able to focus on what matters and minimize distractions--fairly important tasks if I want to finish a book on this stuff.
Thanks to Oliver Burkeman's The Antidote for (among other things) introducing me to Daniel Wegner's work on mental control.
Photo by David Wall. Yay Flickr and Creative Commons.
Almost all of us have to grapple with important professional relationships in which 1) the lines of authority are complex and tangled, 2) the emotional signals and other interpersonal cues are hard to decipher, and 3) there's an interdependence between the two parties that can generate both excitement and resentment, depending on the circumstances.
One process that I've found useful in helping my coaching clients decide how best to manage these difficult relationships is clarifying how they might both connect with the other person and, in contrast, control the other person. I'm not suggesting that it's a 50/50 alternative: In my experience as a coach and certainly in the annals of management literature (cf. Daniel Goleman's Leadership that Gets Results, just as one starting point) connecting with other people is a far more productive and sustainable approach. That said, the ability to control others effectively is a critical managerial and interpersonal skill, particularly in a crisis.
I'm also not suggesting that we face a binary choice: We typically need to make use of both approaches in any given relationship to meet our goals (and a failure to meet those goals may suggest that we're relying on one approach at the expense of the other.)
There's a temporal dimension to these choices as well. Sometimes we're faced with an opportunity to act in-the-moment, and we need to be prepared to quickly employ a range of tactics suited to the situation. And no matter what the present situation, we should also take the long view, considering what strategies to apply over time during the course of the relationship.
The 2x2 grid above is an admittedly oversimplified depiction of this interpersonal landscape ("A map is not the territory it represents"), but I find it a helpful way to convey these concepts quickly. The examples in each category above aren't intended to be definitive or exhaustive; they're simply ones that come up frequently in my discussions with clients and students.
So when considering how to improve a difficult relationship, we might start by asking ourselves...
But it's also important to ask ourselves...
I want to re-iterate that this isn't a 50/50 alternative--in most relationships, most of the time, we'll be most effective at achieving our interpersonal goals through connection. But it's magical thinking to believe that all difficulties can be resolved that way, and we put ourselves at a serious disadvantage if we can't exert control when necessary. It's also magical thinking to believe that control will yield sustainable success--with the requisite power, authority, oversight and time, we can extract compliance from anyone, but it'll last only as long as our stores of those precious resources.
So it may also be worth asking...
Our ultimate goal should be not only the ability to draw upon both approaches, but also the ability to do so dynamically, so that we're not stuck in one mode or the other in a given interaction (or in the relationship as a whole) but can shift as needed, adjusting to changing circumstances.
Exciting news! I've signed a contract with Harvard Business Review Press to write a book on self-coaching. I worked with Editorial Director Tim Sullivan last year to transform my rough framework into a more comprehensive proposal, and ultimately he and his colleagues gave the idea a thumbs-up. (I'm grateful to Tim for his ongoing support and to Grant McCracken for introducing us in the first place.)
I wrote at length about what I mean by "self-coaching" last June, but in brief it's a self-directed process that allows us to be more effective and feel more fulfilled in our professional lives by drawing upon tools and concepts from executive coaching, social psychology, neuroscience, and other disciplines. Self-coaching is not intended to replicate the experience of working in-person with a coach, but self-coaching resources can be of use to people currently working with a coach, people who have worked with a coach in the past, and the much larger number of people who may never have the opportunity to work directly with a coach.
One further note: Self-coaching doesn't mean solitary coaching. As I wrote in another post last June, "While self-coaching is an effort we initiate as individuals, it's not a solitary experience that occurs in isolation from our social relationships. Self-coaching involves not only working with ourselves (as both coach and client), but also transforming key people in our lives into members of our self-coaching team, even if only for a single interaction. By compelling us to make aspects of our inner dialogue public and to engage others as we engage ourselves, self-coaching can be an intensely social experience."
My manuscript for Harvard is due September 2014--which seems both a long ways off and just around the corner--but I'll continue to explore these ideas here rather than take the process offline. After 8 years (!) of blogging I've found that writing in public is the best way to hold myself accountable and actually get the work done, with the added benefit of inviting others into a dialogue that results in better work than I would have accomplished on my own.
I took a longer-than-usual break from writing this fall because of a particularly busy calendar, and I expect to return to a more regular writing schedule this year. In the meantime, you can see the overall framework and links to key posts on my Self-Coaching page, but note that it's very much a work-in-progress. (For example, my initial perspective on goal-setting has continued to evolve over the last few months.) Or just follow me on Twitter, where I announce new posts and occasionally share pictures of baked goods.