The Game of Perception: What people call “Congested” in a bus becomes “Atmosphere” in a night club.
Sipping tea in my garden this morning, I watched a little butterfly, perched atop a freshly opened, fragrant pink rose. As someone who is mighty fascinated by butterflies, I leaned forward to take a closer look. The little creature had a beautiful pair of wings, with an intricate design which was clearly visible as it stretched open its wings, in an attempt to fly, Also, one of its wings was tattered!!
I felt a sudden surge emotions for the little being. As I was contemplating on what I could do to help and feeling sad at the same time, my gaze was fixed at the little wings trying their best at flapping.
Lo, behold! After several attempts, it flew and landed itself on the next flower. After gorging on the sweet nectar, it went on to fly further.
Leaving me with a thought – You really don’t need a perfect pair of wings to fly!
It reminded me of various conversations that I’ve had with many senior leaders, who choose to stay stuck in the Perfectionist Frame of mind.As their Executive Coach, it was my duty to make them see the mirror and recognize how this mindset was often counterproductive and coming in their way of success.
Over conversations, we slowly worked on the limiting belief pattern and I am proud of so many of my Coachees, who learnt the art of letting go, slowly but surely. Their pursuit for perfection was slowly replaced by a pursuit for effectiveness.
And therefore realized – Yes, you really don’t need a perfect pair of wings to fly.
What are the ingredients that go into making “Mental Strength”?
How do you tap into this strength, especially when you are in a challenging situation and the odds that you are surrounded by, seem absurdly insurmountable?
What is that magic ingredient that defines a Champion?
In light of Roger Federer’s “Epic” win at The Wimbeldon 2016, I was asked these questions at an interview conducted by First post, Network 18. My views as a Life Coach, from a vantage point of observation, where I have had the privilege to see many leaders unleash their greatness, for over a decade now, are summed up here.
A token of humble thanks to Ms. Sulekha Nair, Features Editor at First Post who has summed up our discussion so beautifully.
The fifth game would decide the clincher of the title between Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz, two of the best teams in the game during the late 90’s. The five game series had tied 2-2 and the best player in the world, Michael Jordan was going through sleepless nights between the fourth game and the fifth. He wished he be injured during practice, wished that his food be poisoned and he be admitted to the hospital. He wished that some calamity befall and the games stay as they are!
The reason? He did not want to be a part of the fifth match and stake the reputation of Air Jordan, the greatest player centre court had ever seen by losing the penultimate game. At the pinnacle of his career, the greatest basketball player of the world faced the most interesting challenge of his life – “The Challenge of Vulnerability.” It is a different story that he played the game, with all his heart and went on to win the most valuable player trophy at the NBA, but his story certainly resonates with the stories of some of the greatest people who’ve lived their time on earth.
How many of us have faced this situation when the odds are stacked against us, when we really want to quit and give up, when we are haunted by the demons that lie dormant deep within us? How many times in our lives have we almost given up, feeling a sense of desperation and deprivation ready to call it quits when your leadership is challenged? How many times have you felt like a vulnerable leader?
There’s good news. When a Michael Jordan can feel vulnerable, so can you and I. We all have our moments when the odds are stacked against us and we question our own ability and capability.
During those moments you need to realize that vulnerability is not an act of cowardice, but the ability to propel yourself and show your authentic self, first to yourself and then to the rest of the world. It is that force that you experience during the most testing of times, yet you break out of its shackles and emerge triumphant. Vulnerability is what brings out the best from within us and makes us stronger.
There are a few myths which are associated with vulnerability which is very important for us to get done with. The top three myths regarding vulnerability are as follows –
- Vulnerability is weakness: No it isn’t. It is the strength that gives us an opportunity to surpass our weaknesses
- You can stay away from vulnerability: It is a part of our existence and hence a part of us. No one can stay away from vulnerability, however we can cope with it and emerge victorious.
- It is not about going all alone: Vulnerability is also about disclosure, about the confidence to confide in someone who you trust and possibly guide you out of the situation.
There are moments during your course of engagement that you feel low, feel the need to back out, feel that the time and the situation are not suitable for your mind to propel towards action, fret not! Vulnerability could be an asset if used well could guide you into your next orbit of confidence and conviction.
Vulnerability is an asset, use it well!
It is conference call time for a multinational headquartered in Paris. Professionals in three time zones get ready with their details and plug themselves in the conference. The first greeting starts with a small tease with the professionals in three time zones expressing three salutations – A good morning, another one good afternoon and the third one expressing a good evening. They break the ice with another banter stating how the time zones have been made irrelevant by technology. They then get into their engagements, discussing serious issues pertaining to the clients. This is no exception, but a rule in a globally connected ecosystem.
Virtual teams are the new realities of the business world. With physical geographies having been obsolete in terms of businesses being done, to succeed it is but important for every professional to understand the nuances of managing virtual teams across the globe.
Given below are some techniques to manage virtual team meetings effectively –
- Motivate people to engage in relaxed conversations
Being in different time zones and from seemingly different cultures, it is but important to break the ice before hitting the point. Motivate your team from across the world to engage in relaxed pleasantries if they are meeting for the first time so that the team is relaxed to share ideas and opinions with each other.
2. Encourage cultural sensitivity
As your teams move into virtual conversations across several locations, it is pertinent that each one of them attending the meet is sensitized to the cultures of the others who are participating in the discussion. Because it is virtual, it becomes more imperative than face to face meetings as to be sensitive to the diversity that each of the member brings to the table.
3. Describe work process
Each individual has his/her unique way of looking at tasks. In a virtual team, where time is a huge factor, it is important that you upfront describe the discussions and deliberations so that each one of the member is in the same page. Setting standardization in the deliberations will save a lot of time, which otherwise would be difficult.
4. Have clear and detailed deliverables
It saves a lot of energy and effort from either sides when you have an absolute clear and detailed deliverables to be discussed and concluded at the end of the meeting. Everyone, irrespective of the geographies loves to be a part of a professional culture which is focused and has a clear agenda to discuss and deliver.
5. Be meticulous in your approach
Remember that the most important aspect of a virtual team is how you effectively communicate with each other. Hence, it is important that you become a great team player across the board. Make sure you listen intently and ask questions rather than forcing your opinions on others. Also, it would be great if you could call people by their names and get everyone to contribute their ideas to the discussion. Speak slow and use short sentences so that everyone understands clearly what you are saying. State what seems obvious to you because if you assume that people across geographies understand a few things without saying, you would end up in a position to call for the next meeting…albeit the same agenda!
As an Executive Coach, I see a lot of leaders going through the stress of not being able to effectively manage their career and family. The work scenario today, is highly demanding and people are facing the problem of extended working hours. The concept of a 9 am – 5 pm job no longer exists. Added to this, our smart phones ensure, that we are glued to our offices, long after we have physically moved out of the building. In such a scenario, maintaining a healthy work life balance is almost a dream.
It becomes even more challenging in the case of women. Many highly educated and immensely talented women have kept their careers aside to devote time completely for their family. This situation leads to stress and health issues in most people.
Some reasons which trigger this imbalance are :
- High levels of competence prevailing in the society. Executives, in the urge to get high ranks in their careers, keep taking up more and more work.
- A Perfectionist Attitude – Very high benchmarks for self , situations and others
- Another major reason is our global economy and dealings with international businesses. Odd working hours, to match client timings makes it difficult to have proper work life balance.
- Long working hours and no limits on the office timings are a big cause for this imbalance.
Let’s talk Solutions:
During numerous coaching interventions, where work – life balance was a strongly aspired goal, my endeavour has been work on the participant’s limiting belief systems. At the crux of this guilt ridden, unfulfilling life, is usually a powerful belief system at play – The “Either – Or” Belief, which deters us from striking a healthy chord between work and personal commitments.
Let us try and give up this extremist view (Either-Or) and replace it with a new belief which is holistic and encompassing of both spheres.
“Work – Life Integration” is largely how a person prioritizes career and ambitions on one hand and personal life including social activities, health, family, leisure on the other.
This seemingly daunting task of maintaining a healthy work life balance, may not be so difficult, in reality. A few smart moves and disciplined use of simple techniques is all that may be needed to achieve your goal – Career AND Family.
Here are some solutions you can incorporate in your life to attain a healthy Work-Life Integration.
- Never Overbook yourself with work. Set limits to the work you are taking on and then respect these boundaries.
- Efficient planning helps you use your work days, weekends and holidays effectively. When my children get their annual schedule from school, the first thing I do is to synchronise all our calendars. This way we can leverage on the long weekends and vacations and use these as bonding time for the family. All reservations are made well in advance, and that saves us the trouble of last minute woes.
- A monthly, weekly and daily To-Do list is a good habit. Make sure you don’t run separate priority lists for work and home. Life has a tendency to throw up challenges but this practice will help you navigate through them with much more ease and finesse.
- Build up your “Not To Do List”. We often end up doing work, which may seem urgent but later regret because it was not in alignment with our goals (Not important) . Consider this list sacred, and do not give into any pressure which might push you into this slippery territory.
- One of the success mantras of a balanced life is to learn to say “No”. Know when to use this powerful word, and just go ahead, use it!
- Invest time in training your team at work and staff at home so that you can delegate some of your work load. Train your kids to take up their personal responsibilities.
- Take advantage of latest technologies to reduce your work-load, hours and stress. Women can especially make benefit of the latest technology and use techniques like live video streaming for looking after their kids when out for work.
- Keep in mind that things cannot be perfect, at all times.
- Offices and companies also need to understand this issue and take an initiative. They can conduct seminars and trainings on ways to achieve Work-Life Integration. Companies are offering options like half day work, work from home and prolonged maternity leaves for their women employees.
Many countries these days have limited their working hours to increase productivity and make people happier. Sweden, has recently moved to a six-hour work day. Such initiatives by the government are also much appreciated and longed in our country. In a developing country like ours which is flooded with overseas work, there is an urgent need to look into this matter by both individuals and corporates to have a healthier workforce and future.
Here is a wonderful article by Joanna Barsh and Johanne Lavoie. They have shared five simple exercises that can help you recognize, and start to shift, the mind-sets that limit your potential as a leader.
It is published in The McKinsey Quarterly dated April 2014. Here is the link: http://www.mckinsey.com/Insights/Leading_in_the_21st_century/Lead_at_your_best?cid=other-eml-alt-mkq-mck-oth-1404
Lead at your best:
When we think of leadership, we often focus on the what: external characteristics, practices, behavior, and actions that exemplary leaders demonstrate as they take on complex and unprecedented challenges. While this line of thinking is a great place to start, we won’t reach our potential as leaders by looking only at what is visible. We need to see what’s underneath to understand how remarkable leaders lead—and that begins with mind-sets.
As important as mind-sets are, we often skip ahead to actions. We adopt behavior and expect it to stick through force of will. Sadly, it won’t if we haven’t changed the underlying attitudes and beliefs that drove the old behavior in the first place. Making matters worse, our behavior affects other people’s mind-sets, which in turn affect their behavior. A leader’s failure to recognize and shift mind-sets can stall the change efforts of an entire organization. Indeed, because of the underlying power of a leader’s mind-sets to guide an entire organization toward positive change, any effort to become better leaders should start with ourselves, by recognizing the thoughts, feelings, and emotions that drive us.
In this article, we’ll share five simple exercises adapted from our new book, Centered Leadership, that can help you become more aware of your mind-sets. Armed with this knowledge, you can start making deliberate choices about the mind-sets that best serve you in a given moment and learn through practice to shift into them without missing a beat. This allows new behavior that improves your ability to lead at your best to emerge naturally.
1. Find your strengths
A surprising amount of our time and energy at work is focused on our shortcomings—the gap between 100 percent and what we achieved. For many executives, this pervasive focus on weaknesses fosters a mind-set of scarcity: a feeling that there are too few talented people in the organization to help it move the mountains that need moving. Many executives we talk to find it very hard to recognize, accept, and appreciate any other view. The same may be true for you. But what if you could move mountains by starting with strengths, leveraging people’s strong desire for meaning?
Try this exercise to learn your strengths. Find a comfortable spot without distraction. Close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. When you’re ready, put yourself back in these three moments, in turn:
•As a small child. What form of imaginary play do you like most? What characters or roles do you choose? What games attract you most, and who do you get to be in them?
•As a young adult. What activities draw you in so entirely that you lose track of time? What boosts your energy, and what does that say about you?
•As a working adult. Look back to a high point that occurred over the past 18 months. What are you doing? What is the nature of the impact you are having on yourself, others, and the organization?
Looking across these moments, what do you value most about yourself? What would fill you with pride if you heard it from your colleagues and loved ones at a celebration for you? Those are your strengths.
Of course, there is no magic in the act of self-reflection on strengths. The magic comes when we learn to integrate strengths into our daily work—a real challenge, since many executives believe that strengths are the words that come before the inevitable “but” in their performance reviews. It is hard work to shift mind-sets in the face of mounting pressures and worries. We adopt the athletically inspired mantra “no pain, no gain,” as if the shift to “playing to our strengths” was unrealistic, yet we overlook the fact that professional athletes always aspire to play to their strengths.
Some executives will use the greater self-awareness the exercise brings to catalyze a career change—drawing on feelings that may have been percolating. The vast majority find that the simple act of peering through the lens of strengths is a doorway to enhance their power, generating positive emotions and energy. One executive admitted that the process of understanding her strengths—among them empathy and love of learning—and then hearing them confirmed and appreciated by her colleagues brought tears to her eyes. Another reported learning more about a colleague during a ten-minute conversation about strengths than he had in the previous ten years’ worth of conversations about everything else.
To be sure, everyone has weaknesses to improve. But deliberately shifting to a focus on strengths is a far more inspiring approach; you’ll raise the odds of lighting up everyone around you and unleashing enormous energy for creativity and change. Fabrizio Freda, the CEO of Estée Lauder, told us: “You need supertalented people who know they need to do fantastically well. And when your leadership team takes the same attitude, you create a culture where each one can give his or her best. . . . In particular, you have to find the strengths of each individual and of the organization—and then you can create magic.”
2. Practice the pause
We all face challenges at work: impossible deadlines, missed budgets, angry customers, sharp-elbowed colleagues, unreasonable bosses. When the upset caused by any of these experiences threatens something at stake for you, you are likely to suffer an “amygdala hijack”—that moment when your brain sends cortisol and adrenaline coursing through your body to help you defend yourself. You may lash out in anger, walk out on your colleagues, or simply stop in your tracks.
Instead of that “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction, what if you could pause, reflect, and then manage—creatively and effectively—what you’re experiencing? Here’s a tool to help. Recall an upsetting thing that happened recently but still carries an emotional charge. You were not at your best; you felt fear or anger in the moment, along with unpleasant physical sensations: a racing heart, a knot in your stomach, or even nausea. Put yourself back in that moment now. As you do, keep in mind the metaphor of an iceberg, where little is visible above the surface.
•In this moment, notice the impact on yourself. What are you doing or not doing? What are you saying or not saying? How are you acting? What effect are your words and actions having?
•Below the waterline. What are you thinking and feeling but not expressing? What negative outcomes are you most worried about?
•Deeper still, look at your values and beliefs. What is most important to you? What belief do you hold about this situation, about yourself, and about others?
•Even deeper, examine your underlying needs. What is at stake for you here? Are you aware of any deeper desires and needs?
Surprisingly, perhaps, we most often create the outcome we fear. Worried about losing control? When you snapped at your team, you just did. Worried about being heard? When you argued defensively, people turned away.
Pause and ask, “What did I really want for—and of—myself in that moment? By noticing when our attention is focused on needs that we want to protect, and redirecting it instead toward the experience we want to create, we open up access to a greater range of behavior.
A senior executive, for example, was involved with a large operational-change effort. He had been at a team meeting to discuss safety standards, and things didn’t go well—he had not created the outcome he wanted. He had hoped for a learning session that generated solutions and empowered the local general manager leading it. Instead, he had remained largely quiet and offered broad-brush advice based on his own experience. The meeting felt like a surface-level discussion or, worse, a top-down audit.
Examining his own motivations, the executive saw he was leery of destroying the general manager’s confidence by speaking; he wanted people to rise to the challenge and learn. But he also wanted to preserve group harmony and be liked. By avoiding conflict and not taking a stand, he was creating the outcome he feared—a vicious cycle of inaction, disengagement, and defensiveness.
With this recognition, he could begin to shift. When he felt this same tension rising, he practiced pausing, thinking about his intentions, and then constructively voicing his concerns or asking a question. His example prompted others on his team to do the same, opening the door for more learning-focused interactions—his initial goal.
Further, to help teammates increase their self-awareness, he instituted a “check-in” at every meeting’s start. During this step, colleagues would each briefly describe something happening “under the waterline” for them: say, a stressful project deadline. This ritual helped all team members to pause, reflect, and better understand their own mind-sets and those of colleagues. It sparked more honest, productive conversations and encouraged teammates to trust each other—a key factor, as we’ll see.
By figuring out how to pause and reengage our “thinking” brains (the parts governing executive functions, such as reasoning and problem solving), we can make the shift from a mind-set of threat avoidance (a fear of losing) to one of learning and of getting the most out of the moment.
3. Forge trust
Senior leaders need a community of supporters to achieve audacious goals, for communities are built through shared objectives and mutual trust. Yet not everyone views trust in the same way, so as leaders we must learn what others value if we want to inspire trust. At a minimum, the effort leads to greater understanding.
In fact, simply recognizing and embracing the differences in how people perceive trust can strengthen it. Once we are aware of our own—or others’—profiles, we tend to adjust our behavior subconsciously. When we do so deliberately as well, the results are quite powerful. After all, it’s our behavior that instills trust in others, not our intentions.
Take this test to see what aspects of trust matter most to you. For each of the elements below, score yourself from 1 (I rarely do this) to 7 (I regularly do this):
•Reliability. I don’t make commitments I can’t keep; I always clarify expectations and deliver on promises.
•Congruence. My language and actions are aligned with my thinking and true feelings.
•Acceptance. I withhold judgment or criticism; I separate the person from the performance.
•Openness. I state my intentions and talk straight; I’m honest about my limitations and concerns.
Consider the case of the CEO of a large bank who was dissatisfied with how his company had changed: what had once seemed to be a collaborative environment now felt like the opposite. Executives reported an atmosphere of defensiveness, bureaucracy, and pervasive mistrust. These feelings reinforced a “silo” culture that made it harder to collaborate on launching new products.
The senior team used the exercise above to spark a broader discussion about trust and the company’s culture. Fairly quickly, the team recognized that the bank’s moves to become more focused on key performance indicators (consistent with reliability) were the source of the tension. Digging deeper, the team learned that the big emphasis on performance had, over time, discouraged managers from raising concerns about the implications of the program for employees and customers. This, in turn, lowered the quality of debate in meetings and encouraged defensive and bureaucratic behavior.
Consequently, the changes were widely seen to be in opposition to acceptance and openness, trust elements that mattered dearly to employees. People were concerned that openness with customers was being sacrificed to “making the numbers.” This realization spurred the senior team to find areas where reliability and openness could be seen as complements, not opposites—a shift in mind-set and, ultimately, behavior that helped the bank to improve the customer experience significantly.
When you shift your mind-set from “trustworthy people are a scarce resource” to “I can inspire almost everyone to trust me more,” your community of supporters will expand effortlessly.
4. Choose your questions wisely
What propels leaders to carry out unprecedented, audacious visions? Fear? Foolishness? Ambition? A sense of duty?
Hope. Leaders we admire tend to use fear as fuel for action, but they favor hope. Fear is of value because it gets our adrenaline flowing, sharpens us, and makes extraordinary contributions possible. But it’s easy to succumb to fear and feel overwhelmed by downside risks. Fear spreads through an organization like a contagion. Without the counterbalance of hope, fear paralyzes. So how can we find the right mix of both? Start with the questions we ask.
Try this exercise. Find a discussion partner and ask that person to discuss his or her most pressing work problem with you. However, at first use only these questions to guide the conversation:
•What’s the problem?
•What are the root causes?
•Who is to blame?
•What have you tried that hasn’t worked?
•Why haven’t you been able to fix the problem yet?
In a few minutes, stop, thank your partner, and ask for a redo. Restart the discussion, using these questions instead:
•What would you like to see (and make) happen?
•Can you recall a time when the solution was present, at least in part? What made that possible?
•What are the smallest steps you could take that would make the biggest difference?
•What are you learning in this conversation so far?
Five minutes in, stop again and debrief your partner about his or her thoughts and feelings during the first versus the second discussion. What did you notice? What were his or her underlying mind-sets? What were yours?
The difference is tangible. The first set of questions, great for solving technical problems, often prompts defensive reactions and leaves participants feeling drained. By contrast, participants report feeling animated, curious, and engaged the second time around.
We tend to use the first set more often. These problem-focused questions work well for technical, linear issues that have “right” answers. As we move up the ranks as leaders and the challenges become more complex, our problem-solving instincts can lead us astray. By contrast, when we develop solution-focused instincts, we empower and engage others, deliberately infusing hope. Remember that employees with problems already feel fear. Problem-focused questions only fuel it.
A plant manager we know used this approach to spark better ideas and improve accountability on the front line. He created a pack of cards that shop-floor supervisors could use with line workers in daily operational problem-solving sessions. On one side of the card, the problem-focused questions; on the other, a solution-focused translation. The supervisors quickly found that using both sides of the card brought markedly better results than the traditional questions alone—and that the range and quality of solutions improved dramatically.
The plant manager’s message was simple, yet powerful: look for problems and you’ll find them; look for solutions and people will offer them. By choosing our questions thoughtfully, we can shift our mind-set from “my organization is a problem to be solved” to “my organization holds solutions to be discovered.”
5. Make time to recover
Who wouldn’t want to work in high-performance mode nonstop? A desire for achievement and competitive success urges us on—often past our physical and mental limits. Professional athletes build in time to recover, but executives rarely do. Why not? The limiting beliefs are well accepted: commitment is noticed through hard work and suffering; only slackers take time off during the day. People tell the story of a hospitalized colleague with awe: “He worked so hard he collapsed, in service of the company.” Hero? Not really.
If that young executive had the self-awareness to shift his mind-set from managing time to managing and balancing energy, he might have remained in good health. The solution is simple: find ten minutes twice each day (morning and afternoon) to recover, stepping back into a zone of low but positive energy to recharge. Consider all four sources: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual activities can each fuel you. Schedule recovery activities, and stick to them until this is your new normal. Here are some examples we’ve observed:
•Physical. A Brazilian exec walks up a few flights of stairs quickly—more flights if she is agitated or upset—and then she slowly walks down, giving herself the time to reflect and come back to center. An Italian senior manager has an afternoon coffee, walking to the lobby café instead of the coffee stand on his own floor.
•Mental. When a US CEO needs to recharge his energy levels, he consciously seeks out conversations with employees, so he can learn something new.
•Emotional. A Mexican company vice president chooses to recharge by reaching out to friends regularly to send thanks and love. A Swedish entrepreneur reviews an e-mail folder where she keeps compliments, thank-you notes, and warm greetings.
•Spiritual. A technology executive turns her chair to look out the window, meditating on nature and life in the form of the oak tree that fills her view. A pharmaceutical executive brings an empty chair, representing patients, to important meetings, to remind everyone why they are there.
Of course, managing energy isn’t necessarily a solitary activity; we’ve seen leaders inject recovery practices into daily business routines. For example, the CFO of an aerospace company found that a weekly meeting he chaired was draining. To energize his team, he changed the format, starting each discussion with the prior week’s notable lessons and achievements. The new format was a hit: weekly attendance went up, the meetings’ substance improved dramatically, and what had been a pure number-crunching exercise began to generate new ideas the company could use. The meetings were more fulfilling for the CFO, too. “I finally feel like I’m a thought partner to the business,” he told us, “rather than a cop.”
As you reflect on the mind-sets that limit you, consider a shift to “practicing recovery regularly helps me spend more time in high performance.”
In our work with executives, we’ve found that tools, practices, and exercises like the five above help leaders understand—and shift—the mind-sets that govern their actions. Trying to change our behavior (what is seen and judged) will fail—the old, hard-wired patterns return when pressure mounts—unless we have first addressed internal patterns with conscious effort.
To make change stick, unwire and rewire from the inside. Start with self-awareness: seeing yourself as a viewer of your own “movie.” Once you see the pattern, you have a choice whether to change. Owning the choice creates enormous freedom. And as you exercise that freedom to change your mind-set and practice new behavior, you role-model a transformation—creating what does not exist today but should. And isn’t that what leaders do?
About the authors
Joanna Barsh is a director emeritus in McKinsey’s New York office, and Johanne Lavoie is a master expert in the Calgary office.
This article is based in part on the authors’ book, Centered Leadership: Leading with Purpose, Clarity, and Impact (Crown Business, March 2014).