At a recent corporate leadership workshop, I asserted that you need to be authentically you, and leverage your unique strengths for success. I got some furrowed brows. Then a young woman raised her hand and simultaneously shouted out, “Have you done the colors assessment test? Because I took it, and it said I was like 90% RED, which means I am competitive, strong-willed, determined, demanding, purposeful. My manager says I need to balance out my colors more and bring in more blue or green, for example. What do you think? How does playing to our strengths help us succeed on teams and working cross-functionally.”
I could see there was nothing patient (green) or cautious (blue) about her, but possibly she had some other green qualities. (i.e. caring, encouraging) in her. And she definitely had some yellow (dynamic, enthusiastic).
I answered her in this way – “it may not be the PC answer, but I believe balance is bullshit. I think: you’ve got to be authentic, and leverage your strengths for true success. When you are confident in your skills, your passions and your convictions, people can’t help but be attracted to you. Or at least respect your position, because it’s rooted in integrity and truth. I’m not giving you permission to be a narcissistic asshole, you’ve got to consider how your actions will impact others, of course. But play to your strengths.”
So when does our super power become kryptonite in the workplace? And how can we avoid this pitfall?
I’ll give you an example. I have a lovely client – let’s call her Elizabeth. She prides herself (and she should) on her ability to garner consensus with colleagues. She works hard to understand others, and to empathize with their positions. Elizabeth is easy to work with, and a pleasure to be around. She’s known for being easy-going and willing to compromise – all of which is critical in the pressure cooker environment she works in. She helps keep everyone calm. How could these strengths ever be weaknesses, right?
At some point, especially as leaders, we have to put a stake in the ground. We must orient from a place of integrity and personal beliefs. We can (and should) take in everyone’s opinions and suggestions, but as leaders, we have to make hard choices around where we have conviction to move the business forward. It may be a choice that isn’t popular with the team, but if you’ve heard them out, and also been transparent about how you arrived at the final decision – they may not like you more, but they will respect you (more) and they will follow you.
Conversely, I probably have a different Colors Assessment than Elizabeth. I pride myself on being decisive and daring. These are often appealing qualities in a leader. But if I become so entrenched in my position that my perspective becomes myopic and limited, I lose some real opportunities – for deeper trust and connection (through empathy) with others, plus for my own growth & learning. And if I make rash decisions based on strong but limited opinions, I may even lose the folks who originally followed me because they don’t feel considered in the decision-making process. To paraphrase Rumi– being connected is more important than being right. At least, if you want to have a successful team.
In the spirit of building rapport, and in order to avoid transforming your Super Power into Kryptonite, consider following these 5 steps on a regular basis – especially when interfacing with colleagues, teams, managers and direct reports.
1. READ THE ROOM – This is a powerful social skill. Notice the dynamic energy in the room. Has all the air been sucked out of the room by what someone said? Is there tension? What does the person’s body language tell you vs. what their words are saying? Here is where we PAUSE & BREATHE. It gives room for the next few steps, and it also shifts your energy from defended and willfully entrenched in your position (when we’re feeling under attack – even in simple disagreements, we go into fight/flight/freeze which narrows our vision and the impulse is to fortify your position. “Double down” on it, so to speak) Everyone – yourself included – responds better to your peaceful energy borne from conviction, not defense.
2. ACTIVE LISTENING – This is so difficult to do. Especially when you’re passionate about something or you have really good expertise on a topic. Most of us get busy preparing what we’ll say in response, certain of our rightness, or at least our right to an opinion. Instead, actively listen. That means, force your mind to be in the present, and only the present. Listen to the words they say, one after the other (it’s harder than you can believe to fully concentrate!). Then respond only when they have finished. And respond only after you’ve digested it (which usually takes a couple of seconds of silence) instead of with pre-planned points.
If there’s conflict, then it’s even more important to do the above, AND these additional steps:
3. VALIDATE – normalize their feelings, their position. Something like “It’s understandable that you’d be feeling this way.” This can be the difference maker between them shutting down completely or the opportunity for open, connected communication.
4. CLARIFY – The most tried and true technique for getting a better understanding of another person is with open ended questions (WHO, WHAT, WHERE, WHY, HOW, WHEN) vs. close ended questions (yes / no questions)
An even more powerful technique is reflective language, where you reflect back what they’ve just said. Start a sentence with “What I’m hearing you say is…” or “It sounds like you are saying is…” Recap/summarize what you’ve heard them say.
Caveat: I don’t mean for you to be a fucking robot. Be authentic in your curiosity. Use words that resonate for you, but convey the sense that you indeed heard and understood them. The simple act of hearing one’s words back is incredibly validating, and leaves the person feeling considered. Critical for good team work.
This doesn’t mean you are agreeing with them whole sale, or that their perspective is right. It merely means it’s worth considering and you are willing to do just that. Brene Brown has a great response for leaving room for differing opinions, without doubting or rejecting their differing opinion. You can simply say, in response: “that hasn’t been my experience”. I love that!
5. EMPATHIZE – Walk in their shoes. We all come from a narrow perspective (our own lived experience) with many blind spots, but if we can begin to question our own assumptions through curiosity about the other person – their intention, their hopes, their fears, their concerns – we can then find a solution that meets their needs and ours. (Hint: for all of us, what’s under the surface is usually a basic human concern like economic wellbeing, security, recognition, sense of belonging, and control over one’s life.)
Big Picture, if you do nothing else throughout your exchanges with others, choose to be curious. Notice what your motivation or intention is. Where are you orienting from? Is it an ego driven place (my wants/my needs/how It impacts me/what others think of me)? If it is, can you broaden the motivation to openly consider everyone’s wants and needs?
Making room for this kind of expansion and for capacity brings more experience and more depth of perspective to us, as individuals.
In other words, don’t be a narcissistic asshole. Cause selfishly, it’s good for you!
After all of these steps, connection will be made, and both parties will be in a more neutral open place.
From here, you can refocus the communication style & move to problem solving, and solicit their buy-in for resolution. And you get go back to being a super hero!