Do you see marketing yourself as boasting? Do you get annoyed at people who promote themselves? Do you feel uncomfortable talking about yourself? Do you tell yourself that you’re too modest / shy / introverted / humble to tell people about your work? If you answered yes to any of the above questions – congratulations, your less competent colleague is about to get your promotion.
Everyone is low on time. Your bosses manage multiple people and projects and have their own career agendas. No one has the time to unearth your greatness and unless you speak about your own achievements, chances are they’ll go unnoticed. If you feel unappreciated at work, it probably means that you haven’t communicated your successes to others.
Companies like Hindustan Unilever, P&G, Cadbury’s etc spend millions on their advertising. If they didn’t, their sales would drop drastically. No one would know what products or services they have. If you don’t advertise yourself well, you might think you’re doing great work but you’ll feel resentful when people don’t take notice. They’re not to blame though, they just don’t have enough data on you.
Not marketing yourself is a disservice, not just to yourself but also to the others. Great marketing is not saying I am better, it’s saying this is how I can help you. Imagine John, a father of three, fighting cancer and desperately looking for a cure. And imagine there’s a lab in Norway that has just invented a cure but hasn’t marketed it because their belief is that a good product should market itself. They might have invented a life saving drug but they have been quite lazy and selfish by not marketing it.
So go out there and market yourself shamelessly, albeit skillfully. Great marketing is not boasting or being arrogant. It’s actually a loving and selfless act. It’s making a mark and impacting the world to a greater extent.
Would you pay to get feedback?
Imagine your boss calls you on Friday evening and says he wants to meet you on Monday morning at 11 to give you some feedback. What are you going to think? How are you going to feel? For many people, thoughts like, ‘what did I do?’, ‘have I goofed up somewhere?’, ‘what is he thinking of me?’, ‘am I in trouble?’, ‘am I going to get fired?’ etc will start plaguing them. They’re going to feel anxious or upset. They will not be able to relax that weekend.
Feedback, while one of the most powerful development tools, is also one of the most misunderstood, misused and abused words in the corporate world. It’s because many people don’t understand the difference between feedback and judgment. If I tell you, ‘you’re a moron and you never listen to me’, that would be judgment and you would feel attacked and therefore want to defend yourself. However, if I say, ‘I feel I may not have explained myself clearly, could you please tell me what you’ve understood so far?’ I’ve used feedback and followed it up with a question. This is non-threatening to the person I’m talking to and more effective in getting my message across.
People normally think that feedback means something about them and they divide it into positive or negative feedback. They feel really good about themselves when they get ‘positive’ feedback and really upset with others and themselves if they receive ‘negative’ feedback.
The perspective we share with the participants in our leadership workshop is that feedback is just neutral information. It doesn’t say anything about you but is someone’s perspective on the effectiveness of your action. It’s not a fact and so it can’t be true or false. It’s just how your actions come across to that person.
World champions – sports stars, CEOs of companies etc have coaches who they pay a lot of money to just for their feedback. They invite that feedback. They listen to the different perspectives and then they make the final choice. And because champions view feedback as information and understand that it is for their development, they can derive that information irrespective of how the feedback is given.
For example, suppose you deliver a report to your boss and he says, ‘this is the worst report I’ve ever seen.’ This can be a provocative statement but if you want to derive the information out of it, it could be that the report did not match his expectations. If that’s the information, then your response (instead of getting upset) could be to ask what his expectations are. But suppose you do ask the question and again your boss says angrily, ‘what’s the point, I keep telling you but you give me the same shit every time.’ Now that’s what he has said, but the neutral information could be that he feels he’s told you many times but you still haven’t met his expectations. If that’s the information, you may say something like, ‘sorry boss, please tell me one more time and I’ll write it down this time and make sure you get the report by afternoon today.’
However, the reason we don’t see the information present in feedback is because we are afraid that it says something about ‘us’. It matches our own beliefs. For example, if someone says you broke a commitment, and your belief is that if I break a commitment it means that I’m a bad person, you will not hear the person saying the neutral words ‘you broke a commitment’, you will hear them say ‘you are a bad person’ and then you will get angry and upset and feel judged.
The problem, though, is not that the other person might be judging you but that you’re judging yourself. If someone called you a flying purple rhinoceros, you would probably just laugh it off or even poke fun at them. But if a girl is sensitive about her weight and someone calls her fat, she would get upset – not because they are calling her fat but because she believes that she’s fat or not good looking.
What is your relationship with feedback? What are some of the distorting beliefs that get in the way of you receiving feedback? What would be possible in your life if you started viewing feedback as neutral information?
The Campus to Corporate Transition Challenge
In our work as Professors at the Indian School of Business for MBA students, and consultants for young leader programs at companies like HUL, Airtel, Godrej, Aditya Birla, Teach for India, etc. we’ve noticed a number of repeated challenges that these managers face as they transition from academia into the professional world.
1. They think there is a right answer
Years of studying for Maths and Physics exams has convinced them that there is one right answer to every question. And there are areas of course where there are right answers and wrong answers. There is a right answer to 2+2=? or ‘the capital of India is ?’. But when you’re faced with a non-performing subordinate, should you sack them or give them six months more coaching, or a warning, or move them into another area that might be more suited to their strengths? Well there is no right answer here.
Thinking there is a right answer leads these young managers into two errors. One is that they lose confidence in their own judgement and become tentative because they’re not sure if they have the right answer. Or they become cynical when other people will not listen to their ‘right answer’ and assume it’s because they’re too dumb or dogmatic to understand. They need to learn, that in leadership, there are multiple legitimate perspectives but you make the decision that you’re willing to bet on. There is no one right answer.
2. They think that feedback is objective
Until the transition point, feedback that these managers have received has been almost completely objective. A score of 78% in your Statistics exam is about as objective as feedback gets. However when they enter the corporate world, they are shocked to find that their bosses have opinions about them that count. Getting feedback such as ‘you’re not a team player’ or ‘I think you were too passive in that meeting’ or ‘I don’t feel you’ve spent enough time thinking this project through’, leads to hurt defensiveness and justifications. They have a certain self definition of themselves and when they hear comments that contradict that image they don’t know how to handle it.
They need to learn that it’s irrelevant what your view of yourself is that you’ve constructed over 18 years with your friends and family that love you unconditionally. At this stage they need to acknowledge that ‘this is how I’m coming across to other people’. And that trying to argue your way out of the perception that has been created hardly ever succeeds. They need to get over it, and grow into new more effective behaviours if they want to be successful in their careers.
3. They think they should be rewarded for their hard work and individual contribution
Until this stage the link between their hard work and the results they have gotten has been fairly linearly correlated. You work 3hrs on your MBA assignment you get 60%. You work 4hrs you get 80%. You work 5hrs you get 100%. But you don’t get rewarded for hard work as an adult. Every building labourer works harder than Bill Gates in terms of the sheer amount of effort they put in. You don’t get rewarded for hard work, you get rewarded for results, and results depend on creativity and efficiency and relationships and a whole host of other factors. Young leaders don’t understand why they should be penalized in terms of rating if they sent a mail to a colleague who didn’t respond. They’re thinking ‘I submitted my assignment on time’.
What they need to realize is that their ‘work’ is to get others to do ‘their work’. The CEO of a company can’t tell the board that he sent an email to the employees telling them what to do and they didn’t do anything so it’s not his fault. Because young leaders are struggling to handle subjective feedback anyway, they feel wrongly victimized for what they see are other people’s failings. So they need to understand that the ratings they will get from here on will not depend on their individual hard work, but on their ability to work through other people using good relationships and superior influencing skills.
And that blaming others doesn’t build either.
4. They think they should be accepted for who they are
As a result of feeling wrongly judged on the basis of bosses they see as unempathetic and victimized by the non-responsiveness of other colleagues who impact their ratings, young leaders can withdraw into a defensive cynical shell or a self flagellating one. They feel that in order to survive they have to put on a fake corporate mask and this disillusionment with ‘corporate life’ can, and does, derail many sensitive young leaders and prevent them from bringing their best self to work and to life. They give up their hobbies and fitness routines and go through a tough time as they knuckle down and work long hours trying to survive their first year.
For some, the scars never heal, and they struggle to regain the idealism they had at college. The process of disillusionment can happen at a startling rate, taking place over a period of just a few months. At this stage they need to learn how to hear feedback appreciatively, be gentle with themselves, and slowly but with determination work themselves to a higher level of maturity, credibility, performance, and ultimately satisfaction, meaning, and happiness.
There are three ways that young leaders can leave the first year of corporate life. One is cynically hardened like an egg placed into boiling water. The second is squashed like an overboiled vegetable. But the third is to respond to the scalding water of the first year like a coffee bean… using it as an opportunity to inject the surroundings with their own flavour, aroma, and colour.
And that’s when the organization truly feels their presence and impact.
Are you using authenticity as an excuse?
There are a few occasions in our leadership workshops, especially with young and mid-level high potential managers, that the conversation turns to ‘authenticity’, and more times than not, I end up wincing or face palming myself.
I hear comments like: “I find it hard to be authentic at work because I’m a creative person but my boss wants me to do things by the book, even if there’s a smarter way. That saps my motivation”
This is not a conversation about authenticity. It’s a victim story, the subconscious purpose of which is selling ineffective communication and poor stakeholder management with one’s boss as a subjugation of ‘authenticity’ by ‘them’.
We need to redefine authenticity so that it’s a helpful concept, rather than a distracting one.
Authenticity is not about doing what comes easily or naturally to you.
If you felt like pooping just now would you poop in your pants and then say ‘I was being authentic, I did what my body felt like doing’?
Of course you wouldn’t. You’d tighten your sphincter muscles, waddle as fast as you humanly could to the nearest toilet, and mutter a little prayer on the way there. You would do what was uncomfortable because the consequences of doing what felt natural was unacceptable to you.
It bears repeating. Authenticity is not about doing what comes easily or naturally to you.
A tennis player cries after he’s won or lost the final point of the Wimbledon final, not before. He keeps his emotions under tight control so that he can harness them rather than let his lips quiver. A good husband doesn’t hit his wife in a fight and call it authenticity because that’s what he had an angry urge. Authenticity would be taking a walk to cool off so that he doesn’t do or say anything hurtful to the person he loves.
Authenticity is about making decisions that are consistent with what your priorities and with what is most important to you. Authenticity is about doing what is required to produce the outcomes that are meaningful to you. It may be doing something that comes naturally to you. But it may be doing something that is very hard and uncomfortable for you.
A mother who lies to a terrorist about where her children are hiding may be factually dishonest.. but completely authentic. In that she is making a decision based on what is important to her. The fact that her words are lies is not relevant to the well of authenticity they spring from.
People sometimes focus only on natural strengths when they talk about authenticity. But discipline is the ability to do what is hard or even unnatural because it is required, and it is the other side of authenticity, the side that young and mid-level high potential managers do not appreciate yet when they speak about authenticity.
Whether the manager we spoke about earlier sees her personal authentic style as innovative or ‘by the book’ is irrelevant and a self indulgent distraction. The relevant question is ‘what is the best approach in this specific case?’ She needs to have an open conversation with her boss in which they reach an agreement. If she does not convince her boss, then she needs to do it her boss’ way and commit to that method.
But holding onto the ‘I just want to be authentic’ story is a misunderstanding of what authenticity is.
Authenticity is often about doing things that come naturally to you.
But it is also just as much about doing things that are very hard, unfamiliar, unnatural, and uncomfortable.
This is rarely a conversation that comes up when we coach CEOs.
Those who reach the top are the ones who have understood this.
Study yourself failing
We do not keep getting better at something, the more we practice it.
If that were the case, given that many of us type on our laptops almost every day, we’d be typing at 200 words per minute by now.
Actually what happens is that we get better at something we practice till the level we reach becomes ok with us.
And then we stop improving.
This place was named the ‘Ok plateau’ by journalist Joshua Foer.
To get better once we have reached the plateau requires not practice but something else, something that has come to be known as ‘deliberate practice’.
Deliberate practice requires you to consciously put yourself out of your comfort zone and do something at a higher difficulty level than you are used to. In the case of typing, if you type at 50wpm, it would mean that you push yourself to type at 60wpm. When you practice at this level you will make errors and mistakes and the tendency will be to slow down. But if you persist mixing in deliberate practice with your normal practice, what happens is that after a while you suddenly notice… that you’re typing at 55wpm comfortably.
In our leadership development work with high potential managers who have been singled out by their company for investment, we push them harder than they’re used to in the training room. We ask them to set unreasonable targets in their action learning projects back at work. And we realize that this creates tension during that period. But almost always we find that at the end of the journey there is a sense of accomplishment and often considerable surprise – “I didn’t think I was ever going to achieve that when I started!”
There are a few steps that we have found that these high potential managers take during these periods that seems to be effective for them, and that we’d present before you as suggestions to try out:
1. Pick a target that you think is just out of your reach
2. One way of doing this is to try to do what someone you believe has more confidence/skill/experience than you would do
3. If you succeed, then pick a higher target till you start failing. You haven’t reached your limit yet.
4. STUDY YOURSELF FAILING
5. Seek out critical feedback immediately. You will most likely find the specific behaviours and beliefs that trip you up at your limits
6. Treat these failures like a scientific experiment. Form a hypothesis, try it, see the results, tweak your approach
7. Keep doing this till you succeed
8. Go down a notch in your targets. You’ll find that you’re performing at a higher level than you were before but with the same level of effort
Stick to the plateau for a while but when you’re ready…. go again.
You may want to ask yourself where in your life you have reached the ‘Ok plateau’ – it could be work, it could be relationships, it could be health, it could be finance, it could be your hobbies.
And then ask yourself if you’re ok with it or not. You may have come to believe that you’ve reached your limit because you’re not getting any better at it.
But practice doesn’t make perfect. Beyond a point, it doesn’t even make you better.
Deliberate practice does.
A team cannot perform at its peak unless its members are willing to fight with one another.
High performing teams subject their discussions to Darwininan laws of survival – only the fittest suggestions are allowed to survive. This only happens when raw, unfiltered debate is the norm.
It is rare that everybody will agree on the final answer on a complex issue. If they did it wouldn’t be complex. In a highly functioning team, team members understand this. Since they have been willing to argue their opinions and hear those of others, they are willing to commit to the final decision even if it is at odds with their own point of view. Harmony and consensus are over rated. Great team players are willing to ‘disagree and commit’.
But in order to live happily in this sort of a performance culture, the members have to have an extremely high level of trust in one another. People in these sorts of teams believe that if someone is arguing with them, it is not to make them look bad, but because they want to get to the best solution for the team. And they believe that if they challenge someone else, that person will not take it as a personal attack, but as an invitation to look deeper and check their assumptions.
The conventional view is that you can only risk being honest with people you trust. Our point of view is that the causality works the other way around – if you risk being honest with people, you create trust. And you will only be willing to take that risk if you really care.
Do you care enough about your team to learn how to fight with them?
If you feel you are a judgmental person then you will have to ask yourself the same question that many comic book characters have had to ask themselves when they discover they have special gifts…
Are you going to use your power for good or for evil?
We judge ourselves and others for being judgemental. We tell ourselves that this is a bad thing. Our point of view is that being judgmental is an extremely good thing… but only if you can control your gift.
If you ask an open minded person what they thought of a person they just interviewed they might say something like ‘I don’t know.. seemed ok I guess’. A judgmental person on the other hand might say ‘He’s smart but has no backbone. He won’t be able to hold people accountable. He won’t make it as a sales manager’. Judgmental people may not always be charitable but they often see things that others don’t and/or faster than others can. This is their gift.
Their curse is that they often think that their opinions are facts. If they express these judgements indiscriminately then they risk hurting others and alienating themselves. If they try to avoid this fate by keeping their opinions to themselves then they often feel resentful and come across as cynical.
Judgmental people who have learned how to balance trusting the inner voice while remaining open to possibilities are simply intuitive and decisive. If they are willing to share their thoughts in a constructive manner then this gift can become a superpower.
‘I think you’re smart but I feel you might struggle to hold people accountable which is an important capability for a sales manager. Are you willing to learn this skill because if you’re not you’re unlikely to enjoy this specific role and will probably struggle to deliver the results expected of you.’
What are you feeling judgmental about today? And are you going to use your superpowers for good or for evil?
The slippery slope
The newspapers are rife with stories of rich, successful people who end up in jails. It doesn’t seem to make sense for anyone in their positions to put everything they’ve earned at risk. So why do they?
Nobody wakes up one day and decides to throw away all their principles. The problem is that the process of losing our compass happens in infinitesimally small degrees. The story goes that if a frog is put in a pan of scalding water it will immediately jump out. But if it is put in tepid water that is gradually heated, it doesn’t realize what is happening and gets boiled. The first transgressions leaders can make are so minor that most people wouldn’t even see them as issues but… the slippery slide has started and a body in motion tends to remain in motion.
Rather than jumping to criticize those unfortunate men and women who have fallen prey to this phenomenon, we can learn from their mistakes and ask ourselves where in our lives have we started down the slippery slide. Because the slide doesn’t just show up in financial irregularities. It shows up anytime short term pressures force us into compromising on the things that are really important to us. It could be the first time we shout disrespectfully at a subordinate, or the first time we miss our child’s birthday, or the first time we stop exercising regularly, or the first time we take an overly conservative target because our new boss doesn’t know any better.
Is there any place in your life where you’re being tempted onto the slide?
Uninformed? Stupid? Or evil?
Often when we are trying to to roll out critical initiatives we come up against key stakeholders who exert an equal and opposite force that can bring us to a grinding halt.
We assume that they are misinformed and give them the information that they need to see what we see. But they remain unmoved. We can only conclude that they must be stupid. However some are clearly extremely bright in other areas and so, if they pretend not to understand then, they must have some personal agenda that conflicts with the organization’s goals – they must be evil. And so when we speak about their stand we can’t help but use a disparaging tone.
“All he cares about is cutting costs”
The problem is that we emit a resentful vibe which they can pick up on, creating a situation in which they are highly unlikely to listen to what we have to say. We can only create a congenial conversation if we are willing to convince ourselves that their position is legitimate and constructive.
“If I understand you correctly, the reason you don’t want to approve investment in this project is because you’re afraid costs are already spiralling out of control? Great.. may I talk you through some numbers that will explain why I think that this project is actually going to help us reduce overall costs?”
Who are the people you have had significant differences of opinion with? Are you willing to reframe all their positions so that you truly appreciate them for what they are trying to achieve?
The game of work
Games are fun because there are challenges to overcome. Without rules and difficulties that restrict the options available to us, a computer game would be as fun to play as an infinite blank excel sheet.
The challenges aren’t distractions from the game… they are the game. And when we master one level of difficulty we hope the next one will be even harder to crack so we don’t get bored.
In our work however we often experience the challenges of working with demanding bosses, casual subordinates and inflexible peers in other departments as frustrating blockages that prevent us from doing our jobs properly.
But the challenges are the game. Leadership is about aligning people with different objectives. Without this complexity our jobs would be a mundane list of tasks that people with half our talent would be paid to do at half of what we earn.
When we face a challenge at work we can either throw up our hands in disgust or we can grin and rub them together in anticipation. And when we master the current level of difficulty we can move to the next level where we hope the challenges are even more exciting.
Are you treating your work as a job or as a game?
The art of work
There are no great poems about office life. Nor are there movies or stories or paintings or comics or songs that celebrate the day to day challenges of work. Every other conceivable topic gets covered through these art forms – love, parenting, college, friends, sporting triumphs, wizards, dinosaurs and even aliens. But inspiration for the arts from our regular jobs seems to be in short supply.
We live in a world where work is seen as a drudgery to escape from. The very phrase ‘work-life balance’ implies that we see our lives split in two: One of those components is ‘life’ where we by definition ‘live’. This implies that the other component, ‘work’, is separate from our ‘life’ and, by logical extension, that when we are at work we are dead.
The best managers don’t work in this zombie-like daze. They don’t see work as a chore – they see it as a subject to be learned and mastered.
The truly great managers see it as even more than that – they see it as a medium of self expression. People like Steve Jobs, Bill Gates, Richard Branson, etc don’t do their jobs so they have enough money so they can ‘live’ during their non-work time. They produce art during their working hours. And people admire the art these great masters produce in the same way that they admire the paintings of a Van Gogh or the symphonies of a Beethoven.
Are you treating your work as a job or as a canvas?
It came as a bolt from nowhere. India, the World Champions and No 1. Test team in the world were whitewashed 4-0 by England and, if anything, the scoreline flatters us.
Numerous reasons have been floated – poor planning by the BCCI, lack of desire by players who have achieved success, fame and fortune too early, ageing stars in decline, injuries, greed over national pride, T20itis, etc.
No doubt there are many factors but the lingering memory I have is of a weary Dhoni telling the press that the players had played 200 days of cricket in the previous year. That number, for a professional sportsman, is verging on the crazy.
Burnout is now a well researched phenomenon – it’s defined as the experience of long term exhaustion and diminished interest resulting in lowered efficacy. When this is accompanied by physical injuries there are few places to hide and only one solution – rest.
There is little our tired team can do but go on but its recent failures are, as all failures are, potentially a wake up call. It’s for those of us who have been working relentlessly to note – we may survive on the adrenalin generated from winning but it can only go on for so long. It can all go horribly wrong horribly fast.
We all need rest.
Over the last few weeks the most dominant news story has been the attempt by civil activist Anna Hazare and his team to pressure the government into implementing their version of the anti-corruption Lok Pal bill.
It is beginning to look like, at the time of writing, that after weeks of playing hard ball with each other both parties may be tentatively moving towards a compromise that will benefit the country. However they have broken just about every best practice negotiating principle as laid out by the Harvard Negotiation Project.
Principle 1: Separate the people from the problem – The debate had become a volley of personal accusations and counter accusations rather than an exploration of potential solutions. With Anna belligerently accusing the UPA of ‘murdering democracy’ and the spokesperson of the UPA asserting that Anna’s supporters consisted of ‘armchair fascists, overground Maoists, closet anarchists … and funded by invisible donors whose links may go back a long way abroad’ there was little being generated in the way of openness or conciliation to each other’s potentially valid points.
Principle 2: Focus on interests rather than positions - it appeared that both sides got stuck into positionality. Anna refused to stop his fast unless his version of the Lok Pal bill was passed by Aug 30th. The government refused to withdraw its own initial draft of the bill even though the Lok Pal it envisaged was almost universally considered to be toothless. The underlying issues that both parties should actually have been more concerned about were – making sure that the Lok Pal is an effective mechanism for reducing corruption and that there are adequate checks and balances on its power over the democratically elected representatives and the, until now, relatively independent judiciary of the country.
Principle 3: Invent options for mutual gains – Both parties seemed to see only two options. The UPA appeared to see it as a choice between implementing their bill or giving in to Anna’s demands. Meanwhile Anna appeared to see it as a choice between giving up his fast (i.e. losing) or going on till the UPA caved in or perhaps till he had extracted enough concessions to end the fast with honour intact (in six previous fasts he has only once fasted longer than 9 days even when his demands were only partially met). It’s only when a number of different options are considered that the ones that are acceptable to both parties will start emerging.
Of course the above principles would only have been followed by those people genuinely looking for a resolution and it is not at all clear that that is the situation here. Ego and image may well have taken priority over the real issues as they often can do in personality based politics. Thankfully it looks like we are moving slowly to a slightly higher quality of debate as both sides look for face saving ways of softening their stance.
In the meantime we can learn from the situation by asking ourselves whether we are (or were recently) stuck in a negotiation at work or in our personal lives where the positions seem irreconcilable.
How can you use principled negotiation to reach a win win solution?
Note: In the book ‘Getting to Yes’ by Fisher and Ury there is a fourth principle – ‘Use objective criteria’
On the brink of elimination in front of their demanding home fans, India fought back determinedly to win the 2011 cricket world cup by defeating all the other former world champions in back to back matches – the West Indies, Australia, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. There are, no doubt, many factors that contributed to this exceptional achievement but arguably the biggest was Team India’s response to pressure situations.
Yuvraj Singh, under huge pressure for his place in the team at the beginning of the tournament ended as the player of the tournament. Zaheer Khan, who went for 28 runs in his first three overs in the 2003 final had learned to handle his nerves on big occasions, starting the 2011 final with three maidens and following with a wicket in his next over. Captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni, criticized heavily before the match for his team selection decisions and out of form with the bat, promoted himself up the order in the final match sensing that it was the right decision tactically but also knowing that if he failed the entire nation would blame him for the loss. He ended up with a match winning 91, hitting the world cup winning runs with a swashbuckling six.
However most people react to pressure by reverting to a habitual inflexible default rather than responding to the requirements of the situation at hand. In the semi final for example, Younis Khan reverted to ultra defensiveness despite a mounting required run rate while Afridi launched a predictably undifferentiated attack on the bowling instead of waiting for the right balls to hit. In the corporate world, when things aren’t going our way each of us respond in our own idiosyncratic style; some of us get aggressive and controlling, some throw tantrums, some sulk and disengage while yet others simply cave in meekly.
The ability to handle pressure is, as Team India has shown over the last four years, a learnable skill but it requires self awareness, a commitment to personal growth and the discipline to practice new behaviours. The following questions may be useful if this is a skill you would like to develop:
> What sort of situations do you usually experience pressure in?
> What is your default reaction to pressure? What are the consequences?
> What do you think would be a more effective response?
> What is the next situation where you are likely to face this pressure?
Use this as an opportunity to practice your new response. And then…like the Indian team….practice till perfect.
The ‘plane’ truth
In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell relates the case study of how Korean airlines turned around their safety record.
Between 1988 and 1998 Korean airlines had a loss rate of 4.79 per million departures – 17 times higher than a typical American carrier like United Airlines over the same period. It was one of the most infamous safety records in the world and became a source of national shame. However since 1999 its safety record is spotless and in 2006 it was given the Phoenix Award by Air Transport World in recognition of its transformation.
David Greenberg, who was hired to turn things around, made one crucial but puzzling change – he incurred huge training costs and changed the language of conversation of the pilots and crew to English. It was mandated that they speak to each other in a language they were uncomfortable with.
Greenberg realized that a lot of the crashes were happening because co-pilots were not articulating their point of view due to a hierarchical culture. Crashes were more likely to happen when captains were at the wheel than when co-pilots were even though Captains are generally far more experienced pilots. This was deduced to be because if a co-pilot was flying and missed something the captain would not hesitate in pointing it out but if the captain was flying and missed something the co-pilot would respectfully (or fearfully) hold back from offering his point of view. Countries with a highly hierarchical culture have the worst flight safety records and countries with the flattest structures have the best.
Greenberg realized that in order for co-pilots to speak directly they had to get past their cultural traditions of hierarchy and seniority and by communicating in English rather than Korean they were able to construct almost a new identity for the relationship. This allowed them, to a much greater extent, circumvent the cultural discourse they had grown up in.
And of course the same trend is likely to show up in our organizations too. If loyal, engaged managers want to make a contribution to their company – sometimes the best way to demonstrate loyalty is not by following the norm and going along with the flow but by trusting your boss and telling him what he needs to know, even if it means challenging his judgment – so that you can support him in doing his job effectively.
There is plenty of literature and training available on how to lead your team. However there is remarkably little on an equally key skill – how to lead your boss.
Bosses are constantly told to listen to their subordinates and criticized when they don’t but it’s just as important for engaged managers to be confident and assertive with their bosses and push back when required – to support their boss in achieving his or her objectives. This rarely happens because it’s easier to simply whine and paint the boss as a dangerous, unpredictable lion who will tear you to shreds if you bring him or her bad news or an alternative point of view.
But maybe we can learn something useful from lion tamers. They’re locked up in a cage with a lion in a hugely vulnerable situation but somehow manage to operate confidently and effectively. What are their secrets?
1. Feed the lion: Lion tamers feed the lion themselves so the lion associates the provision of food with the lion tamer. What is the food your lion needs? For some it’s performance, for some it’s regular updates, for others alignment with a pet agenda. Needless to say lion tamers keep their lion well fed before they enter the cage. And they do not whinge about the fact that they need to feed the lion in order to do their job. They see it as an integral part of the job.
2. Put the lion on a pedestal: Lions are always kept on a high stool so that they rarely experience the lion tamer looking down on them from a higher position. This allows them to feel dominant and secure. Respect your lion and learn from the parts you can look upto. If you focus on their shortcomings then you’re tempted into the cardinal lion taming sin of looking down at them and making them feel threatened. You do so at your own peril.
3. Never corner a lion: Cages are circular so that a tamer never inadvertently has a lion in a corner feeling threatened. If it does it’s likely to attack. In a circular cage if a tamer accidentally gets too close for comfort the lion can simply walk around the circle to a more comfortable distance. If the tamer is too far the lion won’t move at all. By keeping the right distance between himself and the lion the tamer is able to manipulate the lion to move to exactly the spot he wants. If you have any feedback to provide your boss – give it in private. Don’t corner him in public.
4. Direct the lion’s attention: The crack of the whip is used to direct the attention of the lion (especially away from the tamer’s body!). It is NEVER used to hit the lion. If a tamer even accidently hits a lion he is likely to end up mangled beyond recognition. Pay attention to what works in directing your lion’s attention to the area you need him to focus on.
5. Look the lion in the eye: You need to respect your lion but respect yourself too. Lions can literally smell fear through the pheromes excreted in ‘scared sweat’. They are far more likely to attack if the tamer shows fear. Bosses appreciate confident employees as long as they see them as focusing on contribution rather than rebellion. Handle your boss with respect but remember – you have something important to contribute too. It’s why the company hired you.
And if you get all this right your lion will jump through hoops of fire for you and you can both turn to the audience, bow and receive your standing ovations.
If you decide to remain in the ring then you need to be willing to put in the effort and concentration required to work with lions because if you don’t – sooner or later – you’re lunch.
Mind the gap
There’s a space between where I am and where I want to be.
A distance between who I am and the person I feel I ought to be.
No matter how far I’ve traveled and no matter how far I’ll travel there’s a place I’m afraid I’ll never reach.
Like the moon on a midnight drive or the horizon out at sea. It could be 3 miles away, it could be an eternity.
Is this restlessness what keeps me from living? Or is this striving what it means to be alive?
The curse of perpetual motion
Sharks are motion manifested in physical form. Everything about them – their streamlined shape, their sinewy movements, their focused eyes – signify speed, urgency and restlessness. In fact, unlike other fish, they do not have gas bladders so they cannot stop swimming or indeed sleep for long or they’ll sink to the bottom of the ocean. Some sharks continue swimming even when they’re asleep and others only sleep with one hemisphere of the brain at a time.
This is not dissimilar to how many executives in high pressure jobs experience life – if they stop swimmming they fear they’ll sink to the bottom. As a result they pay prices in the form of their health, time with family and peace of mind. They’re constantly nagged by the feeling that they should be spending more time on those things but when they do they’re nagged by the feeling that they’re letting their organization down since results and success clearly are, to an extent, proportional to the amount of invested time and work.
The answer on a theoretical level is clear – when you’re at work be at work, when you’re with your family be with your family and when you’re with your self be with your self. As the zen saying goes – Do one thing at a time. But on a practical level, as many of us have found, it’s a lot harder than it sounds. Our minds are easily distracted. In order to merge productivity with peace of mind what we need to do therefore is to train our mind to be focused on one thing and the practice created specifically to build this capacity is meditation.
Jon Kabat-Zinn ranked two groups of office workers in terms of a ‘happiness score’ through questionnaires and ECG scans before one of the groups was put through a 2 month meditation program and 4 months after the course finished. The results were startling. If you imagine 100 participants in the program, the happiness rankings of the meditators rose on average by 20 places. Another piece of research, published in the journal of applied psychology, showed the impact on effieciency as well – a 50% reduction in medical errors and 70% reduction of in malpractice suits post a stress reduction program in 22 hospitals compared to a control group of 22 hospitals which did not implement the program.
Ironically in order to be productive and peaceful you may have to be willing to invest 20mins a day learning to overcome your frustration at doing absolutely nothing.
Is it a risk you’re willing to take? Or would you rather live the life of a shark?
Clay and grass
In the summer of 2008 Nadal had just won his fourth straight French open title. The Spaniard had never lost there but at the same time he had never won any other Grand slam title.
And he had been No 2 for years without coming anywhere near threatening Roger Federer’s No 1 ranking.
As he headed into the grass court season Nadal knew that if he ever wanted to make headway against Federer’s grip on the top slot something would have to shift. He would have to step out of his comfort zone on the slicker faster grass surface if was ever to win at Wimbledon.
Nadal started volleying more – and got passed. He started serving bigger – and generated more double faults. He started slicing more low backhands instead of double fisting them and hit a flatter ball on his groundstrokes instead of sending them back with looping topspin – and he repeatedly hit the tape. But he stuck with it and muscled through matches despite his attempts at grass court play rather than because of them.
When he reached the Wimbledon final at the end of the grass court season however – his third successive final against Federer, the dynamic had changed. Nadal was not (and never will be) a natural serve and volleyer. He stuck to his baseline counterpunching game for most points. But by then he had the range and flexibility so that on those rare occasions when he really needed to serve or volley or slice or hit through the ball…. he could. And when that was added to all his other strengths… it was finally enough.
He beat Federer in what many regard as one of the most pulsating finals ever to win his first Wimbledon title and then defeated Federer again a few months later to win his first grand slam title on a hard court surface at the Australian Open where he finally become the World No 1 (after a record 160 weeks at No 2). And then after recovering from knee problems in 2009 he again won the Wimbledon and French in 2010 to regain his top ranking and show the world that 2008 was no fluke.
No matter how good you are – there is another level you can go. And although the strengths that got you here will always be your foundation, they will not, by themselves, get you there. For that you will have to risk venturing out of your comfort zone to develop a greater flexibility and range of options.
What is your next level? Where do you need to go through to get there?