Villains

Men Arguing by Flickr user o5com

One of my favorite stories to tell is about how two villains ruined my life. How they lured me in with sweet words and then dashed my hopes, sending my life into a tailspin. When this happened, I careened way beyond annoyed. There’s LIVID. IRATE. ENRAGED! HATEFUL! INCENSED! INFURIATED!”

It is an amazing, energizing story! I loved telling the story because I got a charge out of it. People love hearing about a villain, and I would get wonderfully supportive comments. Folks were WITH me! They wanted to know what happened next, how I lived through it, and then I’d tell the story of three heroes who changed my harrowing tale.

But this about villains, not heroes. BWHAHAHAHAHAHA.

We love villains. They make stories so much fun. Their presence elicits sympathy.

Which of these villains shows up in your story?

  • That person who is a thorn in your side.
  • The one who just won’t do what they ought to do. They know better.
  • Someone who willfully uses people for their own gains? UGH.
  • The control freak? Or that person who makes snide comments about you, as if you don’t have the right to do what you want with your time, energy, and money!
  • The driver you were following on the road this morning?
  • That a** who seems determined to ruin what you’ve worked so hard to build up from nothing?
  • That one bad boss
  • The person who dressed you down in public!
  • The moron running for political office, who willruin everything and for some reason actually has followers!

Wow. Even as I type this I can feel tension all over my body. Arms, legs, face, fists–I’m so ready for a fight! Man, I wanna get in there! I’ll teach you!

ANGER_smaller

calming breaths… calming breaths…

One thing’s clear: a villain in your life takes an emotional toll.

We have different mental systems for processing our thoughts about friends, and about enemies. (We process thoughts about ourselves using the “friend” system usually.) Categorizing people into “friend” or “foe” groups helps us to quickly determine what they are doing. Without this process, our brains would take too much time and energy analyzing every action for trustworthiness. When the heat is on, we need an easy way of knowing whether to go along or to resist. By sorting people into “friend” or “foe” groups, we quickly know where to build alliances and who gets our fight-or-flight responses.

One result is that we give “friends” the benefit of the doubt unless some egregious behavior is perceived. We see the actions of our “foes” in the worst light possible unless some significant experience makes us realize that we were completely wrong about them. And most of us have had experiences of having to resort someone we thought belonged in one category, and then they proved otherwise.

One of the heroes in the story I referred to at the top of this post is someone whom I originally categorized as ‘villain’ only because of her physical resemblance to a bad boss I’d experienced just a couple of years before. If I’d stayed committed to seeing her as a villain (as a poor, misguided friend kept advising me to do), I would have lost so much.

The choice to trust that someone has acted out of positive intentions can open up possibilities for creative solutions that stay hidden when we are acting out of a need to protect ourselves. We are better able to influence and persuade rather than try to coerce compliance. We’re better able to handle the situation with perspective and options.

It can be important to periodically question our categorization of the foes in our lives. The more we move people from ‘foe’ to ‘friend’, the more allies we have, the lower our stress reactions (tension, sleeplessness, high blood pressure and other psychosomatic symptoms), and the greater our creativity. If we can accomplish the switch, we actually have more opportunities for connection, empathy, and belonging.

How could you determine if someone has been miscast as a villain? Consider:

  1. What evidence do you have that this person is dangerous? If you still have strong angry feelings associated with your memories, you may have trouble questioning their categorization as foe.  However, if you “just have a feeling” about them and have a hard time pinpointing why, or if you can admit your sorting of them was based on a trivial judgment, it might be time to consider giving them a second chance.
  2. If you do have evidence that they’re a threatening presence, take a closer look at that evidence. We usually interpret others’ behavior so quickly that we don’t even realize it’s happened. Try teasing apart your observations (What actions could be picked up by a video camera? What words would have been recorded by a tape recorder?) from your interpretations (what you believe they meant). This can be a rich area for discovering places where we’ve miscategorized a person because we’ve misjudged their behavior.
  3. What other possible explanations can you uncover for the behavior you observed? It can help to ask someone else for ideas to gain some distance from the situation. Or, imagine someone with a different background and life experience interpreting the actions you observed?
  4. Practice awareness of common humanity. This one has been most important for me of late. Humans have fundamentally similar needs, so it can help just to repeat a phrase like this one with your villain in mind: “This person wishes to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.” Notice any judgments that might come up, such as “If that’s true, then they should…!”  Notice it, and let it go. “Should” thoughts just fuel the anger, and distort our understanding of reality.

When we question our casting of someone as “villain,” it gives us power to change the story to stop being the victim and start being the hero.  No longer are “they” to blame for our experience. If we can begin to see and empathize with their common humanity and the needs that drive their actions we regain mental balance, and we can handle the situation with perspective and more creative options.

Start by noticing how you feel, physically, when you’re telling a story about someone who drives you crazy. What is all of that tension doing to you in the long run? What if you could let it go?

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Career Leadership Alignment LLC

Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for leaders who want to ignite the passions and unleash the natural powers that drive high performance in their teams.

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter (including each week’s blog post along with related articles and other content) here. Connect with Amy on Facebook and Twitter.

Change for the slow and old

tortoise
Image Credit: Flickr user Valerie

Change will never be this slow again.”  This shocking statement made in 2013 by Andreas Vogiatzakis, the CEO of Omnicom Media Group in Malaysia, is more and more apparent to each of us. And while some changes appear shiny and exciting, most of us feel uncomfortable taken out of our comfort zones and plunged into the unknown. New technologies, new opportunities, closed doors, and shifting expectations have us all grappling with moment-to-moment differences.

Bottom line, we need skills for surfing these constant waves of change.

In North American culture (out of which I write), we learn about change from stories. One of the most commonly known is about the frog in a pot of boiling water. (Moral: Tune into small changes around you, or enough of them can kill you!) Another is about a butterfly being helped out of its chrysalis by a well-meaning child. (Moral: if someone is struggling with change, let them struggle. We need to struggle to develop our strength, or we’ll never succeed.) Our aphorisms tell us that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” We even talk about pebbles dropped into a pond and the ripples striking others who may be near or far.

We don’t typically think of the tortoise and the hare as a story about change (typical moral: Slow and steady wins the race.)  But I believe what I am seeing here will become apparent.  First though, I’ll share this quote from Seth Godin’s Purple Cow:

Why do birds fly in formation? Because the birds that follow the leader have an easier flight. The leader breaks the wind resistance, and the following birds can fly far more efficiently. Without the triangle formation, Canadian geese would never have enough to make it to the end of their long migration.

A lot of risk-averse businesspeople believe that they can follow a similar strategy. They think they can wait until a leader demonstrates a breakthrough idea, and then rush to copy it, enjoying the break in wind resistance from the leader.

If you watch the flock closely, though, you’ll notice that the flock doesn’t really fly in formation. Every few minutes, one of the birds from the back of the flock will break away, fly to the front, and take over, giving the previous leader a chance to move to the back and take a break.

The problem with people who would avoid a remarkable career is that they never end up as the leader. They decide to work for a big company, intentionally functioning as an anonymous drone, staying way back to avoid risk and criticism. …

When the market changes… With no practice leading, no practice trying the unknown, they’re trapped, panicked, and in serious trouble. … Safe is risky.

Putting all of these stories and metaphors together, and reading them through the lens of my own experiences of change, I distill a couple of important lessons for dealing with change and winning–even if you feel like you’re slow, reluctant, and old (like a tortoise):

If change is happening to you, find a way to make it your own

If you are dealing with an unexpected change, you may be tempted to focus on what you will be losing. That’s an understandable reaction, and yet it’s also one that does not help you as much as it might seem like it’s helping you. We focus on our losses because it supposedly will help us to cope with them, but in reality this does not happen. The more we consider what we are losing, the bigger those losses become.

Meanwhile, we are shrinking ourselves, shrinking our own feeling of being able to deal with the change. So we shrink, the loss grows, and before long the change feels too overwhelming. No wonder we tell cautionary tales about frogs in hot water.

One of the greatest gifts my mother gave me was a habit of embracing the opportunities that change brings. Dad had worked for IBM and retired when I was a teenager, and we tended to move every few years as I was growing up. Every time the possibility of a move was put on the table, Mom’s response was to embrace the opportunity. She would talk with excitement and joy about the friends we would make, the church we might find, and the house we would decorate.

What she was doing with this was shrinking the change by paying minimal attention to losses, and strengthening us by focusing on what we were gaining. It made us feel like navigating these changes was well within our power.

Focus on what you are learning and developing

So many of the elders in my father’s family had Alzheimer’s Disease before their death that I assume that I have a genetic predisposition to the disease. One of the best ways of supporting brain health is to be constantly learning, and one of the steepest learning curves we can experience is when change causes us to abandon our old routines and expectations. Therefore, I can embrace each new environment, each new group, each new curveball that life throws at me as a mental workout that will help me to retain my brain functioning longer.

This doesn’t make it easy. When one of the Canadian Geese breaks out of formation and takes over leadership of the flock, they’re choosing a harder job for awhile. Change is challenging. Difficulty and learning are directly linked if you are focused on learning rather than on the difficulty. Here are some questions you can ask yourself on a daily, weekly, and monthly basis to make sure you are focused on learning:

  1. What skills or knowledge would be necessary to meet this challenge?
  2. What skills/knowledge do I already have?
  3. Who do I know with the necessary skills/knowledge?
  4. What questions can I ask that would help me learn?
  5. What am I able to do or understand now that I wasn’t able to do last week? Last month?

Look at the changes that are coming your way. There are always changes. People all around you are dropping pebbles in the pond, so you aren’t being hit with just one ripple, but ripple after ripple, wave after wave.

Choose just one of those changes and ask yourself: How can I make this my own? How can I find the opportunity and focus on that, instead of focusing on the loss?

What are you learning? What can you learn and develop? Each of those changes is strengthening you if you value the struggle. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, but only if you choose to develop yourself through the struggle and come through stronger. That takes a focus on what you are gaining.

Changing your focus doesn’t make it easy. But it does help you to come out stronger on the other end.

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Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for adults in transition who want to have better engagement with their work lives and leaders who want to have a more powerful, positive impact.

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter (including each week’s blog post along with related articles and other content) here. Connect with Amy on Facebook,Twitter, and learn more at the Career Leadership Alignment website.

Please note that, with the exception of recruiters in industries that interest me, Amy does not connect on LinkedIn with people she does not know personally or does not have a legitimate connection to in real life.  If you want to monitor her activity on LinkedIn you can “follow” by clicking the “Follow” button at the top of this post.

Feedback Zero? Become a Feedback Hero

heros

A feedback-rich environment is a hallmark of healthy, high-performance teams, and feedback is one way a leader can increase clarity in her communications, by listening and observing and then feeding back to her followers what is being seen and heard. However, many people feel nervous about receiving feedback, and that sense that feedback is bad news shuts down the whole process.

If someone has enough experiences of feedback trauma, something else develops: a reluctance to hear even “positive” feedback, making them a feedback “zero”–meaning “I want zero feedback!”

The attempt some might make at seeking permission: “Would you be open to some feedback?” can cause an eye twitch to a feedback zero. “No,” they might cringe, “I don’t want to be shamed, but now I know you’re holding something back, and I can’t go on relating to you until we get this Band-Aid ripped off–give it to me straight.”

Appreciation and even empathetic feedback offered to someone with this expectation of horror won’t be well received at all.

So how can you go from feedback zero to feedback hero?

Practice a growth mindset

Carol Dweck wrote a book called Mindset. This is worth getting and reading if you have trouble receiving feedback. She says people have two main mindsets: a “fixed mindset,” which means the person believes they are hard-wired with certain skills, talents, and abilities, vs. a “growth mindset,” wherein the person believes they can adapt and grow as life changes.  (The book includes exercises for developing your growth mindset.)

Years ago when I worked in my first-ever feedback-rich environment, I went in with a fixed mindset, feeling a need to prove myself and confident that I could do so given the right opportunity. Within a short time I was receiving feedback that was intended to help me improve, but because of my fixed mindset I took this as debilitating criticism. I thought it meant horrible things for me and for my chosen career path.

Fortunately the team I was working with had seen this before, and they stuck it out with me, encouraging me to shift my perspective. At some point within the first three months in that job I experienced a transforming moment when I could begin to see that the feedback I was receiving wasn’t bad news. It was an invitation. Once I experienced this foreground-background shift (like a Hitchcockian widening-angle-zoom-in), I started  for  to grow and develop myself while I had this great opportunity.

The result? I came out a LOT better than when I went in!  Heros grow.

Practice empathetic reflection

The book Nonviolent Communication by Marshall Rosenberg outlines a process for offering empathetic reflection to someone who is upset. Let’s say Betty made a mistake and George is angry and blaming her in a seriously judgmental way. Rosenberg suggests that Betty can respond with an “NVC” question like this:

“Are you angry because my action resulted in a serious inconvenience for you, and you need me to be aware of the impact it had on you?”

Responses like this are not part of our culture. Instead, when George is angry with Betty, he might feel compelled to unload his feedback on her in that instant, and Betty might reach with violence (feeling humiliated and attacking back) or with silence (feeling ashamed and withdrawing). In North American culture we are well versed in these reactions.

In the NVC question above, however, Betty is letting George know that she hears and understands him, but does not necessarily accept responsibility for how he feels.

(Note: If this seems to you like a useful skill to develop, I strongly suggest you find some practice partners. Help each other develop the skills. It also helps to connect with one of the Compassionate Communication Centers that have certified NVC facilitators to coach you through developing these skills.)

This is like the superpower of invulnerability. In real life you aren’t invulnerable, but you can (with practice) develop the ability to make those feedback bullets bounce right off of you instead of going right through you.

Practice receiving feedback

If receiving feedback is something that makes you flinch, you need practice receiving, and the best way to get practice is to ask for feedback.

Asking for feedback is fantastic because it puts you in control. You identify:

  • who you want feedback from
  • what kind of feedback you ask for
  • what subject you want feedback about

Once you’ve set out the parameters, you can start small and build at the pace you’re ready for:

  • who you want feedback from (choose people who are ‘safe’ at first)
  • what kind of feedback you ask for (ask for positives first!)
  • what subject you want feedback about (narrow it down to something you’re actually seeking improvement in first)

The beginner level of seeking feedback (first step away from “zero”) might mean asking your best friend to tell you what you did well in a practice session for a presentation you’ll be giving next week.

The superhero level of asking for feedback looks like this: The boss sits down with her team after a grueling town hall in which she got raked over the coals. She starts out by asking, “Okay, team–what did I do well and how can I be better next time?”  She doesn’t just ask the question. She listens closely to every answer and writes down what she hears. She never argues with anyone. She asks questions for understanding. There’s no defensiveness–just a commitment to improvement. Later, she weighs each piece of feedback and decides whether or not she can use it. She makes the adjustments that make sense and lets the rest go.

Even if you are a total feedback zero today, you can become a superhero through practice, practice, practice.

If you engage with practices like these, you can become more resilient and not so easily taken down by the feedback of the ‘villain’ in your story. You can become better at giving feedback because you have empathy for the person you are speaking to. Your perspective can change to where you understand where people are coming from and what’s really going on. Your skills strengthen, your knowledge broadens, and your leadership becomes more nimble.

Able to leap tall buildings.

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Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for adults in transition who want to have better engagement with their work lives and leaders who want to have a more powerful, positive impact.

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter (including each week’s blog post along with related articles and other content) here. Connect with Amy on Facebook and Twitter.

Handle stress and regain your calm

calm canoe_01

Stress is a fact of everyday life in much of business life. In North America, some businesses are making advancements towards shifting their culture to help workers mitigate or process stress, but most workers and leaders are still on their own for managing stress.

Not all stress is alike. We need a certain amount of stress to be engaged and productive, but there is a tipping point beyond which stress is counter-productive. Our ability to create, to think, and to solve problems can be significantly reduced. It’s like traffic on the highway in rush hour: you may be under a great deal of pressure to go faster, but your brain has slowed down to a crawl.

In moments like that, you need a strategy for getting your brain to move again, as well as a strategy for avoiding these rush-hour traffic snarls in the first place. What can you do?

In the moment: handle the spike in stress

For those moments when you are caught by surprise by stress–a change that brings unpredictability to your future, or an encounter with a colleague who is freaking out–what do you do?  What helps you to process the stress and get back to work?

I start by focusing on my breathing. Next, I move. A workout is fantastic, but sometimes this is just a walk around the block. Finally, I turn on the music.

These are emergency measures. Frequent need of emergency measures, however, is a sign that something needs to change. If you are finding that your stress spikes into these rush-hour levels more than three times a week, a lifestyle change may be in order.

Long-term change

“Lifestyle factors” for stress are generally well-known, and yet many of us choose to just accept them as part of life. Alcohol, overeating, smoking, and other numbing activity or substances are a sign that we’ve decided to self-medicate instead of actually managing the factors that cause the stress. Regular exercise, adequate nutrition and sleep, and time spent in creative play help to contribute to an overall sense of health.

But you already knew that. So what gives?

Chip and Dan Heath, authors of Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, offer an explanation for why we don’t do what we know we should do. Knowing is a small (though vitally important) piece of the motivation puzzle. Knowing what we should do is what gives us direction. But actually going that direction requires that we engage our emotions. To illustrate the relationship between knowing and feeling, the Heath brothers use the metaphor of an elephant with a rider. The rider knows which direction to go and has been trained in how to guide the elephant, but the elephant has to want to follow the rider if they’re actually going to do what the rider knows to do. Thus, the rider stands in for our knowing, and the elephant stands in for our feeling.

Here are the suggestions Chip and Dan suggest for getting that elephant to obey the rider:

  1. Find the feeling. We’re far more likely to do what we need to do if we can feel that it’s the right thing to do. Where’s the emotion behind the change you want to make? Are you tired of feeling stressed? Afraid of what it’s going to do to your lifespan? Longing for serenity? Focus on the feelings behind what you want or don’t want if you really intend to make a change. “If I just get 7 hours of sleep a night, I will have so much more energy and resilience for getting through the day!”
  2. Shrink the change. Most of us will avoid huge, overwhelming tasks. “Just change your lifestyle” is one of those huge, overwhelming tasks. Chip and Dan suggest breaking down that huge change into pieces that feel small enough to actually tackle. Being specific helps with this, too.  Make a commitment to seeing it through: “I will make sure I am lying in bed in the dark without electronics for 8 hours every night for the next month.”
  3. Grow yourself. Sometimes the change we want to make feels so huge because we ourselves feel small. You can “grow yourself” by reminding yourself of past successes. Think about your past achievements–anything you did that you didn’t know if you’d finish it or not. But you did it! Remind yourself of that. If you can do that, you can tackle this.  “I finished college and a master’s degree! I can manage to leave the phone in the other room when I go to bed.”

If stress has you by the horns, do a little diagnostic. A problem that’s hitting you in the moment requires an immediate response — breathing, exercise, and music can help. You probably have other strategies, too–those pictures of the beach on your desk or your family in your phone, the souvenir from Jamaica that reminds you that you get vacations and will take time to play.

But if those emergencies are cropping up more and more, take time to address the problem. What’s the real change in your life that will make a difference? Once your “rider” knows where to go, motivate your elephant to actually get there. And if you find a canoe tied to the dock, save me a seat.

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Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for adults in transition who want to have better engagement with their work lives and leaders who want to have a more powerful, positive impact.

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter (including each week’s blog post along with related articles and other content) here. Connect with Amy on Facebook,Twitter, and learn more at the Career Leadership Alignment website.

Celebrating small wins: The importance of baby steps

course on the sun by ucouldguess

Last week the Harvard Business Review published the results of Interact’s new Harris Poll of 1000 U.S. workers. The poll revealed what I have frequently heard from folks both on the front line and even in middle management: humans want to be appreciated for what they are doing. And it’s not about pizza.

Noticing and celebrating the good stuff can be a challenge for leaders who are constantly attending to problems. We aren’t hitting our metrics, shrink is getting out of hand, H.R. has rules we have to learn and abide by, and I’ve started a new hobby: Collecting to-do lists. (Don’t they make a nice display cascading over the edge of the desk?)

Even leaders who have accepted that part of their role is to offer appreciation, encouragement, and celebration to their employees for what they’re doing well struggle to break free of their focus on problems in order to become conscious of the good.  Why is this?

With few exceptions, we aren’t wired to recognize small wins.  The exception seems to come with parenting. Human adults raising infants become so tuned in to each small change in the development of that child that when the baby shows incremental growth, it stands out to his or her caregiver, who celebrates naturally and easily.

In business however (and much of life), we are distracted from noticing incremental improvements. American workers, managers, and leaders typically are so overwhelmed by what needs to be done, the urgent overwhelming the important, that small improvements pale in comparison to the avalanche of business tasks and improvements that must yet be made.

How can you, as a leader, recognize the baby steps of improvement so you can recognize them appropriately?

Choose moments in which you will slow down

Set aside time each day in which you will limit/eliminate distractions. Schedule it — perhaps 30 or 60 minutes a day. Set the timer on your cell phone. When it beeps, you will stop, but not before.

Put it on your calendar and protect it. If you find yourself too willing to schedule over it and/or skip it, ask for accountability support from someone whose opinion matters to you.

Begin with deep belly breaths. Try a 10-10-10 exercise (breathe in for a count of 10, breathe out for a count of ten, and repeat ten times). This will help you to relax and focus. Remind yourself that the tasks and problems will still be there when you get back, and you will come back.

A practice of slowing down and intentionally offering appreciation every day will change what you notice, because you’ll be looking for material. “What can I recognize for someone today?” With each small win, you will start trying to figure out who could be responsible for that improvement.

Motivate yourself with a reminder of how important your feedback is to your employees

With my last large corporate client I regularly conducted group-coaching sessions with managers and leaders. At the end of each session I facilitated an exercise in which each participant could select one or two others in the group to receive appreciation from. Overwhelmingly, participants asked for appreciation from their own leaders. Why?

When I asked them, here’s the answer I heard: We care more about our leaders’ opinion of our efforts than we do anyone else’s. We need to know that what we are doing is right, that the sacrifices we are making are worth it. Your employees are hungry for your appreciation.

Ask for support

A fascinating dynamic happens when a leader begins to offer appreciation and recognize small wins. This is an attempt at behavior change, which is difficult. Youwill probably not succeed in changing your behavior if you do not receive recognition for your efforts. If nobody notices that you are doing something different becausethey are so busy and stuck in old habits, you will probably become discouraged and stop.

What works, then, is to tell people you are actively working on changing your behavior. Announce it at a staff meeting, and then remind them in the moment: “As you know, I’ve decided to offer appreciation more. I think it’s going to be awkward for us both at the beginning, but I’m going to try it now and then ask you to tell me how I did. Okay?”  It will be awkward–and you’ll get better at it over time. You will reap the rewards of the effort.

Limit yourself to the positive

Ironically, celebrating small wins is so awkward and outside of our experience that we sometimes begin with an intention to offering appreciation, but we fall quickly into our old habits of criticising and raising the bar. For at least the first month that you are practicing this new habit, limit yourself to the positive. Give yourself the chance to really learn how to do it. Say what’s good and then force yourself to walk away.

Become an interested interviewer

Sometimes when you are just getting started, offering appreciation may feel like pulling your own teeth. Your filters have been overwhelming tuned to picking up problems. What could you possible recognize as positive when the world feels like it’s falling down around your ears?

Here’s an actual trick you can use: Become an interviewer, completely interested in your employee’s perspective. Use starters like these:

  1. Thanks for doing xyz (i.e. “that presentation for the team”). What do you believe you did well? [Note: Most people will respond to this question with a list of everything they did wrong. If someone does this, prompt them again to tell you what they did well, and insist on at least three examples. Then ask them what they can do to be more effective next time. Insist on these being actual steps they can take, not things to avoid or “not” do.]
  2. Last month we talked about seeking improvement on your (KPI). What have you tried so far? What successes have you seen? [As above, if you only get negatives in response to this question, insist they tell you somethingpositive, even if it’s a lesson they have learned.]

Recognizing employee achievements is so important to your employees that it was recognized as the #1 communication issue that prevents effective leadership. It is a foundation of effective change management. It stands to reason that to become a more effective leader, you must develop a practice of recognizing small wins. Begin today by making time–start small!–and practicing every day.

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Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for leaders to influence more effectively so their impact on people, on results, and in their world is positive.

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

Amy works with leaders to increase their self-awareness and intervene effectively in their systems. She creates the time and space they need to reflect on and learn from their experience. Sign up for the weekly newsletter (including each week’s blog post along with related articles and other content) here. Connect with Amy on Facebook or Twitter.

You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry

hulk

Recently I’ve heard leaders speaking some version of this sentiment:  “For some reason, I get angry sometimes, and I just lash out. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

If you can relate to this sentiment, I want to assure you that nothing is wrong or even strange about you. The strong burst of anger that seems to transform an ordinarily reasonable, kind, gentle person (Bruce Banner) into a single-minded destructive presence (Hulk) is relatively common human experience. It’s why we can feel sympathy for Bruce.

We all try not to go there, but anger is human. To be more accurate, anger ismammalian. You’re a mammal, so you qualify.

Some years ago, a young woman working in my office said to me, “I’d love to see you angry sometime.”  I’m sure she wouldn’t.

Anger has varying degrees, so we don’t always turn into Hulk. You might be peeved, irritated, frustrated, or just generally hostile. But when your response to provocation tips into irate, livid, or furious, then we’ve got a Hulk on our hands.

In common psychological parlance, your fight response (as opposed to flight orfreeze) has been triggered. In the language of Emotional Intelligence writer Daniel Goleman, you are experiencing an amygdala hijack:

…the amygdala triggers the HPA (hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal) axis and hijacks the rational brain…. When the amygdala perceives a threat, it can lead that person to react irrationally and destructively. – (from the Wikipedia entry on Amygdala hijack)

The amygdala is part of your limbic system, which is in charge of sorting through everything you are seeing, hearing, and experiencing, and deciding if it’s something you should run away from or attack. It is part of your mammalian brain. You also have a lizard brain, which keeps you above the water and out of a fire, and you have a “human brain,” the neocortex, which can think up the Pythagorean Theorem or remember who starred in the original Jurassic Park movie.

You can see that dogs and cats and other mammals have similar anger responses. In response to a threat, there is a reaction designed to protect the organism (person or animal) from that threat. So when you are provoked, you react. You bark, you hiss, and you say that exact thing that will hurt the other person most.

So why do you do it? You’re wired that way. We all are.

Good news: This is universal experience.

More good news: You don’t have to settle for this.

What can you do if this is happening with enough regularity that it’s a problem?

Listen to where the anger is coming from.

The reason our amygdala triggers the ‘fight’ response is because something in our experience tells that part of the brain that fighting back is important. The threat is being perceived as real. So it helps to find out what is making the stimulus (situation, person) seem so threatening?

If you are experiencing frequent amygdala hijacks, you might reflect on the iceberg of conflict while considering that provoking stimulus.  The iceberg helps you to “drill down” into the different drivers of conflict, and when you understand what you arereally upset about, you can make better decisions to address those issues when you aren’t upset. Here are the layers:

  • issues (above the surface)
  • personalities
  • emotions
  • interests, needs and desires
  • self-perceptions and self-esteem
  • hidden expectations
  • unresolved issues from the past

Each layer down is a more powerful driver of strong emotion than what sits above. Those self-perceptions can drive a lot of my conflicts, especially if I think someone has questioned something at the heart of who I believe myself to be. Knowing that, I can take action to practice and develop confidence talking about myself and my sense of identity.

Develop your mental “muscle” so you can slow down your reaction time.

Meditation is one of the most common (and scientifically proven) practices for developing the mental strength to slow down reaction time. By developing your brain’s awareness of itself, you can notice when your amygdala has been hijacked and intervene in some way before you do damage. Counting to ten, taking deep belly breaths, or reciting the seven dwarves are all techniques that can help you to get enough distance from the stimulus that you don’t lash out. But you have to notice what’s happening, first.

If you are experiencing someone else’s amygdala hijack, the above works for you, too. Because the first thing we want to do when we are attacked is to attack back (or freeze, or flee). Take those deep breaths yourself, and count to ten while giving yourself compassion that this is a difficult situation.

Take care of yourself so you have better resilience in a challenging situation.

This might mean getting enough sleep, exercise and proper nutrition so your body is functioning properly, and taking time for yourself to play, create, and rest. Brene Brown’s book The Gifts of Imperfection offers lots of great practices for developing resilience.

As you build these skills, give yourself time to make the adjustment, but that doesn’t mean you sit back and wait. During that time you have to be working and investing attention in the new skills before they can take hold. Just ask this guy who managed to unlearn how to ride a bike.

If you experience an amygdala hijack (your own or someone else’s) in the coming days, take a moment to remind yourself: This is common human experience, and it takes an amazing amount of time and effort to make a change.

And that time and effort is worth it.

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Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for leaders to increase their capacity for complexity and change.

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on conscious leadership, culture, and employee engagement.

Amy works with leaders to increase their self-awareness and intervene effectively in their systems. She creates the time and space they need to reflect on and learn from their experience. Sign up for the weekly newsletter (including each week’s blog post along with related articles and other content) here. Connect with Amy on Facebook,Twitter, and learn more at the Career Leadership Alignment website.

When everything becomes difficult: falling down the bottomless hole

falling-into-a-black-hole by Aisha (ashscrapyard.wordpress.com)

If you (or a friend or coworker) are struggling or suffering, you are not alone. A feeling of being ‘in the hole,’ feeling like everything is just too hard, or feeling like nobody cares can strike without warning. There is a way out.

That image of a pit comes up frequently in creative expressions of human struggle:

KublerRoller

I was introduced to this image about two years ago as I prepared to offer leadership development training to a local congregation’s board. I learned that all of the experiences on the downslope (shock, mourning, guilt, loss, detachment) are emotional experiences. These are reactions to a change, initially welcome or not.

One such experience of change happened for me at work. We were moving from a paper-based system to an electronic system. At first I was excited about all of the paper we would be saving, and our ability to simply “run a search” to find what was needed and where it was in the process at any time–even from home.

A few months into the project I told someone that I felt like I was “sliding backwards downhill in the dark.” I had gone from feeling like I knew how to do my job to feeling completely incompetent. The system was far less intuitive than I’d hoped, and so “running a search” was much more challenging than I’d expected. Rather than everything being closer to hand, everything felt buried, hidden, lost. I felt lost.

Fortunately, into this ‘pit of despair’ materialized a toolkit for understanding change. It was as if a friend jumped into the hole with me and said, “Don’t worry. I’ve been here before, and I know the way out.”

The emotional cycle of change was part of that toolkit, and just having that image in mind has been helpful for me. Sometimes I’ll find myself feeling overwhelmed and stuck–which can last for a few hours or a few days–and then I’ll remember the emotional cycle of change, which offers a map for how I got in (something changed, and I’m having a understandable/normal reaction to that change) and a path for how I will get out.

For me, the path back out is not emotional reactivity, but acknowledgement, validating, recognition, and accountable choice. At the fulcrum in the above graphic is “DECISION,” but I believe that just before that decision comes empathy, as described by Brené Brown.

This has been an important insight for me. Empathy is that friend jumping into the hole with you. That’s a metaphor for feeling what you are feeling. That friend taps into their own experience to say, “I’ve been here before.”

I believe empathy is what helps us find the bottom of the hole. Without empathy, we keep falling. The hole is bottomless.

Brené Brown believes this is always a social experience. I’m not 100% sure about that. I have had the experience for myself of finding the bottom on my own through self-empathy. If I realize “I’ve been here before,” that can be enough. It’s Chapter Three in the Autobiography in Five Short Chapters:

I walk down the same street.
There is a deep hole in the sidewalk.
I see it there.
I still fall in… it’s a habit… but,
my eyes are open.
I know where I am.

With my eyes open, I find my feet, and that helps me start finding the path out.

I offer these thoughts for two reasons:

One, you might be in the hole right now, and I want you to know you aren’t alone. You have lots of company, in fact, whether or not they are talking to you right now. Also, the pit does have a bottom, and you can get out, and you’ll probably be in there again. You’ve maybe been there before. if so, take a moment to assess–what is familiar? What is new? Did you experience a change which triggered your slide? And, finally, don’t be in too much of a rush to get out. It’s painful to be in the hole, but you are still okay. This happens.

Two, you might know someone who is in the hole. Perhaps they’ve been stuck in the hole a long time and you want them to be out. This desire for them to be out of the hole is understandable. It’s caring. It shows you want the best for them, and being in the pit is obviously not the best. However, they will not get out on the merits of advice or benefits or purpose or even problem-solving.  They need, first, to be understood. Do what you can to spend some time on their side, seeing the world from their perspective, to where you can simply say, “I’ve felt like that. I get it.” Resist the temptation to follow that with “but, you gotta get going with xyz.”

They’ll get there. You will. We will.

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Career Leadership Alignment LLC offers coaching for people to have the impact they want to have.  When you align your true best self with your actions, you make the best possible impact.

Amy Kay Watson is a specialist in leadership development as well as cultural and personal transformation. Working with thousands of professionals across North America, Amy has helped individuals and companies re-think organizational culture while implementing effective change. She focuses on management, culture, employee engagement, customer relations, and work-life balance.

Amy works with leaders to increase their self-awareness and make the adjustments they need to align their best selves with their decisions and actions. She creates the time and space they need to reflect on and learn from their experience. Connect with Amy on Facebook, Twitter, and learn more at the Career Leadership Alignment website.