A Mirror for Leaders

June 1, 2013

MirrorOne of the most pervasive and vexing problems in organizations is that most leaders do not realize the damage they are doing on a daily basis. When leaders are blind to the trust withdrawals they make, there is little opportunity to create an environment of high trust. I believe trust is the most critical element for any group, so this problem of leadership blindness holds back many organizations. Is there a way out of this conundrum? I think there is.

What we need is a kind of “mirror” for leaders so they can see their own contribution to the problems that they desperately want to solve. If such a mirror existed, how would we get a leader to use it daily? Brilliant leaders have already found the ability to see their own contribution to lower trust, and they are able to change things themselves. Unfortunately, the world is not full of brilliant leaders, so the average ones, and especially the poor ones, need some assistance.

We have ruled out the individual leader as the person who has the ability to see his or her contribution to a poor culture, so it must fall to some other person or force to do it. In the mind of most leaders, things would be vastly improved if only “they” (other people) would be more dedicated, smart, open, cooperative, cheerful, willing, trustworthy, and a thousand other things. If we asked a random person from the organization to step up and be a sounding board for the leader, it would not work. That person is part of the problem, in the leader’s opinion, so the information brought by the individual would fall on deaf and annoyed ears.

A better approach would be to identify a “Mirror Coach.” This is an individual whom this leader really does trust (there is always someone). This person is the key to having the leader begin to see that she is frequently operating at cross purposes to her intent. In most cases leaders want higher productivity, greater teamwork, people showing initiative, good attitudes, a pleasant place to work, etc., but on a daily basis they do things that take the organization 180 degrees in the wrong direction. Once a leader begins to understand this paradox and is willing to ask, “What do I need to change in my own behaviors to have the kind of results I want from my team?” the door is open to better leadership.

There are four steps to create an effective Mirror Coach for leaders:

1. Identifying the right person

We must identify an individual who has enough purchasing power with the leader to allow a series of frank conversations. This person must not be perceived by the leader as a primary source of the problem. It might be a kindred spirit within the organization to whom the leader has confided in the past. It could be the leader’s own manager, if that person is not also clueless. It could be a coach or outside mentor who is brought in to help clarify improvement opportunities. It really does not matter where this person comes from, as long as he or she has the ear of the leader to discuss some uncomfortable topics without getting thrown out of the office. A trained coach is often the best solution here.

2. Getting the person to agree

The appointed individual needs to understand the assignment is fraught with peril. There is already some rapport established with the leader, and the education process requires some frank discussions that are not comfortable. Change is difficult. The Mirror Coach must honestly believe that he or she is there to provide a crucial service to help the leader grow. Sure, there are going to be some tense moments, but if a stronger and more healthy organization is the result, the Mirror Coach can visualize the role as vital to the future of the organization as well as to the leader. It is an ultimate challenge.

3. Getting the leader ready to listen

This step is the hardest part of the process. The leader has been convinced for a long time that the problems reside with “them” not “me,” so focusing energy on how “I can change my own behaviors” will feel like it is misdirected. It is an act of faith to take the first step.
One way to enable helpful dialog is to have the leader verbalize that things could be better for the organization. Bring in a coach who can work with the senior team (not just the boss) in a series of “lunch and learn” sessions. Eventually, the coach will earn the trust of the boss and gain the purchasing power to have some constructive, albeit difficult, conversations.

Once a leader is willing to get help in the form of a Mirror Coach, something magical happens. The stark realization of the unsuccessful nature of what has been done up to now is a good place to start. Also, the leader may have associates or mentors outside the organization who can advocate that a different approach is worth a shot. All that is required is for the leader to be willing to examine his own contributions to his problems and be willing to explore possible alternatives.

4. Reinforcing the leader for making behavior changes

By taking some baby steps in the direction of modifying behaviors, the leader will be showing a different side, and the people in the organization will react very positively to it. They have been living in a kind of tyranny for so long, any movement in a positive direction will produce endorphins of positive energy that will be obvious to the leader, especially if the actions are encouraged by the coach. Continual reinforcement of the small behavioral changes will persuade the leader to keep the momentum going.

After some initial cautious steps, the leader will become more bold about changing his own behaviors to create the kind of environment where his goals are easily met. The process becomes self-sustaining rather quickly. There is one caution during this transformation.

The behavioral changes needed to sustain a culture of higher trust are not the natural style for the leader, at least in the beginning. There are going to be some relapses and false steps along the way. Both the general population and the Mirror Coach must not lose faith when the leader hits a speed bump. It is important to put any missteps into the perspective of what has already been gained in order to recapture forward momentum.

Progress in the leader’s ability to see the trust problems as rooted in his own behaviors defuses the culture of blame. No longer does the leader see workers as the primary source of problems. While this may be unsettling at first, it is really liberating for the organization because significant progress toward a higher trust environment is apparent every day, and productivity will skyrocket.

Having a Mirror Coach help the leader shift focus from blame to one of behavior modification creates more objectivity because the emphasis will be on understanding cause and effect rather than witch hunting. The new habits will allow more heart-based communications to occur in contrast to the prior one-way directional communications. The leader will learn to relax and have more fun at work while still getting much more accomplished. The source of a poor environment is always a mutual problem for everyone in the organization.

Everyone in the organization stands to benefit from a better environment, so everyone needs to be a part of the solution. With care and patience, the entire team can create a culture where behaviors support the values and vision, so it becomes a win, win, win. The organization wins due to better performance, the workers win due to fewer conflicts, and finally the leader wins because he or she reaches the challenging goals quicker and with less turmoil.


What If You Are a Jerk But Don’t Know It?

February 27, 2011

It seems impossible, but you could actually be a jerk. You may think you are a perfectly normal, fun-loving person that other people just love to be around, but you could be dead wrong and not even realize it. People might have low respect for you because of any number of bad habits or insensitive things you do or say.

Let’s have a little fun with this analysis and see where it leads. Let’s suppose there is a great bell-shaped curve in the sky that shows the distribution of official jerks. The center of the bell shaped curve is neither a jerk nor a wonderful person. To the left of the center are increasing levels of jerkiness. Individuals far to the left of the mean would be categorized by most people as jerks. The rest of the population are not necessarily jerks, and the ones to the right of the mean are great people.

Now, we separate out the jerks and put them all in a line. Maybe you’ve seen them at the grocery store in the express line with 20 items in their basket. We bring each person into a room individually and ask the person if he or she is a jerk. Note: At this point I am going to switch to the male pronouns “he” and “him” to avoid awkward construction. Actually, the tendency toward being a jerk is probably gender neutral, but I am not going to get into that!

In a high percentage of the cases, the individual will honestly not believe he is a jerk. Reason: this person knows why he is acting the way he is and believes it is the right thing to do in every case. If he believed something else was right, he would do that. In other words, our friend on the low end of the scale would be deceiving himself that he is not a jerk when he actually is one according to other people.

If a person was at the extreme left on the jerk scale, then he might have a clue that he is really rubbing people the wrong way most of the time. He would know that because of the body language and feedback he gets from others. That still does not stop him from being a jerk; it just means that he knows about it.

Now comes the fun part. We add the element of time. Since we can act like a saint one moment and a devil the next, we may be perceived by others as being a jerk sometimes and not other times. Of course, we normally do not know the difference between these two states, so we figure we are basically OK most of the time. Behind our back, people talk about our “problems” and the fact that very often we act like a jerk. What a conundrum. How can we find out when we are acting like jerks? (Ironically, only those people who aren’t jerks would care!)

Enter Emotional Intelligence (EI). The essence of EI is that people who have high levels of this trait have the ability to see themselves more accurately. These individuals have a special mirror that lets them view their own behaviors as others do. In other words, people with high Emotional Intelligence may act like jerks for some small percentage of the time, but they have the perception to know they are doing it. People with low EI have a huge blind spot and cannot detect when they are acting poorly.

This phenomenon is most easy to see in organizations at the leadership or management levels. Leaders with low Emotional Intelligence believe people are responding to them in a different way from what is actually happening – hence the blind spot. So, one cure for the conundrum is to get a higher level of Emotional Intelligence to eliminate the blind spot. Can you buy that stuff at a drug store? No! So how can you get higher EI?

In my leadership classes, students often ask if EI is basically inherited or if it can be learned. I say EI most definitely can be learned. Why? Well, because teaching EI is my occupation: I see significant results when helping leaders gain higher levels of Emotional Intelligence through training and coaching. One thing anyone can do is read about the science of Emotional Intelligence. Start with Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman. Another highly effective way to gain EI is to obtain a great mentor who is really high on the scale of Emotional Intelligence and is willing to pass on to you what it means and how to interpret the signals coming to you from other people.

Higher EI would mean you become more adept at reading body language and become more openly curious about how people are really reacting to the things you say and do. It would mean building trusting relationships with many people who will do you the great kindness of telling you when you are acting like a jerk. The only way to get people to do that is to reward them when they are honest enough to reflect what you are really doing at any given moment (good or bad). These trusted friends can save you from having a blind spot about your own behavior, which automatically increases your EI. Collectively, they form the surface of the mirror that allows you to see yourself as others do. From that point on, you might still be a jerk for some part of the time, but at least you will know it.


Life is a Mirror

March 10, 2010

We are all familiar with individuals at work, who constantly complain about the attitudes of other people. These depressing people can be a cancer in any organization, because they consistently lower the morale of other individuals. Of course, the irony is that these people are observing negativity in others, but really, it is just a reflection of their own negative thoughts and actions. They go around spreading gloom about others, when in fact, they are the perpetrators of the problem more than the other people.

I think it is fascinating to observe this phenomenon, and then ponder whether I am sometimes guilty of the same problem myself. When I get fed up with other people being negative, is it really just a reflection of something going on within me subconsciously? In other words, how can I determine if I am blameless? In fact, I am just as guilty as anyone else of observing negativity in others. It makes an interesting conundrum that appears to have no solution.

My challenge to you is to pause before observing negativity in other people long enough to ask yourself the question of whether it may be originating with you. That takes a lot of maturity, because it really is a lot easier to just complain about others.

We all know certain individuals who are world-class negative thinkers regardless of who they are with. I am not referring to the one-of-a-kind rotten apple in the barrel that everyone knows comes up on the negative side of things. Rather, I’m talking about a more generalized malaise where individuals observe most other people in a negative light.

It might be a healthy attitude when observing several people being negative to mentally say something like “I must be putting out a lot of negative energy today, because that’s what I observe coming at me from others. Let me test the validity of that by putting on a more cheerful demeanor and see if it has a positive impact on the current environment.” Who knows, you just might enjoy the benefit of seeing a lot more love and affection coming into your day.