In this edition:
Marshall Goldsmith on "Avoiding the Superstition Trap"
Patricia Wheeler on "Know Thyself and Thy Blind Spots"
Avoiding the Superstition Trap
by Marshall Goldsmith
Walking under a ladder. Breaking a mirror. A black cat darting across our path. Whoa! Most of us scorn superstitions as silly beliefs of the primitive and uneducated. Deep down inside, we assure ourselves that we are above these antiquated notions.
Not so fast. To a degree, we're all superstitious. In many cases, the higher we climb the organizational totem pole, the more superstitious we become.
Psychologically speaking, superstitious behavior comes from the belief that nonfunctional activity followed by positive reinforcement is actually the cause of that positive reinforcement. Years ago, psychologist B.F. Skinner showed how hungry pigeons may repeat nonfunctional behavior when their twitches and scratches are reinforced by small pellets of grain. From my experience, hungry corporate leaders may also repeat nonfunctional behavior when their behavior is followed by large pellets of money and recognition.
Superstition is merely the confusion of correlation and causality. Any human (in fact, any animal) will tend to repeat behavior that is followed by positive reinforcement. The more we achieve, the more reinforcement we get. One of the greatest mistakes of successful leaders is the assumption, "I behave this way, and I am successful. Therefore, I must be successful because I behave this way."
Almost everyone I meet is successful because of doing a lot right, and almost everyone I meet is successful in spite of some behavior that doesn't make any sense. One of my greatest challenges is helping leaders avoid the "superstition trap." This occurs when we confuse "because of" and "in spite of" behaviors.
Consider Harry. He was a brilliant, dedicated executive who consistently made his numbers. He wasn't just smart. His creative ideas led to groundbreaking new procedures. Everyone agreed that he had been instrumental in helping turn around his organization. He sincerely cared about the company, employees, customers, and shareholders. On top of all that, Harry had a great wife. His two kids were enrolled in top colleges. He lived in a beautiful home in a great neighborhood. Overall, life was very good for Harry.
Except for one thing. Harry was a remarkably poor listener. Even though his direct reports and coworkers respected him, they felt that he didn't listen to them. They were somewhat intimidated by his genius and creativity. At times, they felt that if Harry had made up his mind, it was useless to express another opinion. His wife and kids loved him, but they also felt that he didn't hear a word they said. If his dog could speak, it would have said the same thing.
I suggested to Harry that he was probably successful because of his talent, hard work, and some good luck. I also said that he was probably successful in spite of being an appallingly bad listener.
Harry acknowledged that other people thought he should become a better listener, but he wasn't sure that he should change. He had convinced himself that his poor listening actually helped him succeed. Like many high achievers, he wanted to defend his superstitious beliefs. He pointed out that some people present awful ideas and that he shouldn't just pretend to listen to those stupid suggestions to make them happy. He proudly asserted that he didn't suffer fools gladly.
When I asked whether he really believed that his coworkers and family members were fools, he grimaced and shamefacedly conceded that his comment was stupid. These were people he respected. Upon further reflection, he concluded that perhaps he sometimes acted like a fool.
Harry then went into defensive reaction number two: fear of overcorrection. He expressed concern that he might start listening too much and that the company might not benefit from his creative ideas. Perhaps he would become too unwilling to share his opinions. I pointed out that the danger that a 55-year-old man who had been seen as a bad listener for his entire life would overcorrect and become excessively interested in others' opinions was extremely remote. I assured him that he could remove this concern from his things-to-worry-about list. Ultimately, he decided it was more productive to hear people out than waste time justifying his own dysfunctional behavior.
Think about yourself. What are you doing because it helps you achieve results? What are you doing because of some irrational superstitious belief that may have been affecting your life for years?
What's on your because-of list? I have never met anyone who was so perfect that there was nothing on her in-spite-of list. What's on yours?
Marshall Goldsmith is a Founding Partner of Marshall Goldsmith Partners. This article was originally published in Fast Company Magazine, April 2004.
Know Thyself and Thy Blind Spots
by Patricia Wheeler
The COO was in trouble. He'd been called on the carpet for his abrasive style and I was called in to help fix the problem. He was blindsided by the feedback that he'd received, which indicated that he was perceived as an emotional bully who would stop at nothing to push his agenda through, no matter who he offended or stepped on. I asked him to describe his leadership style. He said he was tough but understanding, and was surprised that others found him uncompromising.
As we investigated, we discovered that everyone was right, to some degree. There were indeed many times when he was tough but understanding. He was a talented and capable individual who was successful in driving business results in a growing, highly competitive organization. When under a great deal of pressure, however, he resorted to intense "command and control" tactics, which alienated many of his co-workers.
Let's look at the building blocks of Leadership Intelligence, which entails consciously developing your interpersonal skills in a way that enhances your desired outcomes. The most basic skill in building your Leadership Intelligence is the ability to know yourself. Sounds easy? While we can readily name our successful behaviors, it's more difficult to anticipate and "own" our reactions under moderate to severe stress.
The fact is, knowing yourself isn't as easy as it sounds. We all have our blind spots, no matter how brilliant and accomplished we are. Self-knowledge, at its most basic level, involves recognizing thoughts and emotions, decisions and biases, strengths and weaknesses of oneself in real time.
When executives train themselves to recognize and examine the reasons for their actions and reactions, they are better prepared to evaluate complex situations and make clear decisions. Make no mistake: your emotions affect others, whether you are aware of them or not. Operating with no awareness of them is like trying to operate heavy equipment with one hand tied behind your back.
This COO did the right thing for himself and his company. Difficult as it was, he listened to his stakeholders and began to see that he lacked awareness of his behavior under stress. He learned, for example, that a tight feeling in his chest often preceded his becoming short-tempered and reactive.
Over the next few months, he consciously took a step back when he noticed this sensation, planning his next words and actions carefully. The result? An executive who was better able to handle touchy situations effectively and who was increasingly able to achieve buy-in from important stakeholders on critical issues.
Ask yourself: What are your blind spots? Believe me, we all have them! How well and how often do you recognize your own array of thoughts, feelings, values, biases and emotional state? How accurately do you assess your job performance or your relationship with different individuals? How often do you get or are surprised by feedback on your performance? How intuitive are you?
Coach's tip: Self-knowledge is the basic cornerstone of Relational Intelligence and one of the fundamental characteristics of good leaders. To build this competency, you must build insight. This is an area where a 360 degree feedback process, an honest look at your history of successes and failures and work with an experienced Executive Coach can be invaluable.
Self-knowledge is a journey as well as a destination. You can practice this skill by identifying a difficult situation or relationship at work and examine your own emotional reaction, looking for patterns.
Patricia Wheeler helps talented executives become better leaders. She is the author of numerous articles on leadership.