To make it as a startup founder, or to rise to the top of an organization, requires a certain amount of mental toughness. Founders and senior leaders are high performers who are born of their ability to see complex situations quickly and clearly, and to take effective action. They are expert problem solvers.
A number of things can happen when these superpowers get overused. Sometimes deeper feelings are set aside or locked away in an effort to drive for quick results. Underlying stresses and anxieties can accumulate and eventually make themselves felt in the workplace. This might manifest as an overbearing management style, a lack of connection with and ability to empower the team, a mounting sense of imposter syndrome, or repeated erratic or irrational decisions.
Over time, a healthy bias toward action can become a knee-jerk pattern of judgment and frustration when others aren’t connecting the dots or hitting the high bar of excellence. Soon, there is a “management problem”; the team feels criticized and collaboration suffers.
Alternately, leaders who internalize stress can become consumed by their inner critical voices. In an effort to secure their value, they may overwork to the point of burnout, struggle to implement appropriate accountability on the team, or step in too quickly to “rescue” their team, fostering an over-dependency that doesn’t scale.
In any case, what began as an effective means of operating and producing effective results can become a liability. Judgement of oneself, or the team, or both, ultimately kills collaboration, innovation and creativity and turns the day-to-day matters of strategy and execution into an unfulfilling grind.
Stop the Downward Spiral
The outward expression of judgement, criticism and frustration frequently sounds like:
“You need to…”
“We need to…”
“What’s missing here…”
“How could you…”
Or, with best attempts at giving some positive reinforcement:“I like what you did here, but…”
In these attempts to drive better results, the opposite happens. The receiver of such messages hears some form of “You are not good”, and the interaction enters a downward spiral. Once this happens, the participants in this conversation can no longer connect, join, share, learn or align. To add insult to injury, whatever followed after “You need to…” was often correct, or at least one possible solution to a problem, but it cannot be heard because the recipient is too busy dealing with the damage to their self-worth.
To be clear, this pattern goes on with internal criticism as well. What began as a (potentially accurate) observation and attempt at self-motivation, devolves into a destructive side conversation about value and worth, wasting precious energy that instead could be devoted to the challenge at hand.
You don’t need to be a meteorologist to navigate the storm
To understand and reverse these patterns, leaders must look at the (often difficult) truths that have shaped them and how they are contributing to the exact outcomes with which they find themselves so frustrated. This involves getting in touch with the thoughts, feelings, and patterns that drive judgement and criticism. It involves stepping out of certainty and into curiosity, flexibility and vulnerability.
In my work with leaders, I often encounter some resistance at this stage in the early change process. Understandably, the imperative to explore emotional patterns with oneself and in relationships can sound like a lot of work for people who have extreme demands on their time. “It would be so much easier if they could just respond to the well-intentioned part of my message!” they claim. While this is true, it is just not how humans are wired. It is also true that slowing down to understand the emotional underpinnings of your reactions will cost some time in the short run, however, the benefit will always outweigh the cost in the long run. Lastly, you do not need to become a meteorologist, you just need to be able to navigate the storm. What follows is a simple framework to help you manage yourself swiftly and skillfully in situations where judgement and criticism arise.
The Three Steps: Awareness, Perspective, Choice
AWARENESS + PERSPECTIVE ⇒ CHOICE
In any given challenge, if you have Awareness of your emotional reaction, and Perspective around it, you will be able to make a clear, conscious Choice that aligns with your goal. In other words, developing self-awareness and the ability to get perspective on your emotional reactions, used in the context of what really matters to you, will allow you to act consciously, intentionally and collaboratively toward your desired outcomes.
Step One: Get Awareness
Acknowledge and Label the Feelings
Noticing when one is in a state of judgement or criticism is often easier than identifying the emotions that are fueling that judgement. Therefore, let’s begin with the idea that judgement is a feeling, or at least, it comes with feelings. It is a signal that there are other feelings present, and the first part of the work is building awareness of that patterning.
Most commonly, the feeling that accompanies judgement is frustration. And the feelings fueling judgement and frustration are most often disappointment, confusion and fear. When you get more granular and specific about the feelings underlying judgement, you improve your chances of responding appropriately and effectively to the situation. For example, confusion will require a different remedy than fear, grief, or disappointment.
Accept and Allow the Feelings
If you were once an expert problem solver and consistently produced good results as such, you probably reaped some rewards (not the least of which is a powerful feeling of mastery!). Naturally, judgement and frustration arise when it appears that others are keeping you from that powerfully good feeling. After all, you see it so clearly, why can’t they!? The hope is that by expressing judgement and frustration, others will jump on board and you’ll be expertly solving the problems together. In this way, the conviction in your judgement promises to be the rocket fuel that pushes you past the messiness of human partnership and collaboration. If only that were the case.
On top of that, frustration (or at it’s more extreme, anger) is an active feeling. We generally like taking action because it feels like we are doing something to change the undesirable situation. In this way, the frustrated parts of ourselves hold up a “promise” of being effective. It can be uncomfortable to take a different approach, to trust that another (calmer, more open and patient) path will produce as powerful a result.
Awareness in Action
Once you allow the judgement, and you can accurately label the feeling beneath your judgement, you are in a better position to say something that is generative (that doesn’t lead to the downward spiral). Here are some examples:
“We need to come into the office to get real work done!” becomes
“I’m fearful that we will lose the robustness of our team if we stay remote.” or
“I miss being in a shared space with colleagues.”
“You need answers to the follow up questions that the board will ask about this data!” becomes
“My concern is we will lose funding if we do not instill confidence about our plan at this meeting.”
“You told me that you were committed to this!” becomes
“I’m confused about what happened between our agreement last week and what you are saying now.”
“After all of the training we did, how could this be your conclusion?!” becomes
“I’m disappointed in the results of our process.”
Do Not Believe Everything You Think!
Feelings are always real, but the accompanying thoughts are not always true. A multitude of psychologists, coaches, authors, buddhist practitioners, and leadership experts have espoused a version of this statement, which is basically an injunction: “Do not believe everything you think!”
Susan David, a leading researcher on human emotions and author of Emotional Agility, says, “Feelings are data, not directives.” She instructs us to use our feelings as “signposts”. In other words, ask yourself “What is the information contained in this feeling?” Adding onto the statements above, in which you transformed a criticism by naming a feeling or concern, you can now add a statement about what you care about or value (that hopefully the other person shares). For instance:
“I care about the vitality of this organization that we all worked so hard to grow. I am concerned that staying remote will jeopardize the health of our teams and our ability to deliver on our mission.”
“I am dedicated to this project and care deeply about the people it serves. If we lose our funding, we lose this dream. Let’s talk about what the board will be looking for in this presentation.”
“I want every person who works here to feel like they have agency. If we do not have reliable processes for keeping commitments, we cannot make that happen. ”
Step Two: Get Perspective
When you are caught in a feeling-fueled reaction and you desire a certain outcome, it is often difficult to step back and get perspective on a situation. This is where other people can be extremely helpful, if you can tolerate opening up to information that may prompt a reexamination of your perspective. In doing so, you risk hearing something you don’t want to hear or confronting something you don’t want to be true. You also stand to significantly strengthen your decision.
You can train yourself to look at situations and decisions from diverse perspectives. There are the perspectives of multiple stakeholders. For instance, what would your team, organization or community think about this? How would customers or competitors view this? Taking a perspective across time can be useful, i.e., What would this have looked like 30 years ago, or will it look like 30 years in the future? Often you also need to look deeper inside yourself to your innermost values, and outward to the bigger systems that operate in your organization, industry and culture.
If you find yourself hesitant or held back from exploring different perspectives, it is time to wonder what more deeply held beliefs are at play. Deeply held, and sometimes even unconscious, beliefs can exist that pull us in multiple directions. The Immunity to Change model calls this “competing commitments”. An example of a deeply held belief might be “My friendship will not survive if I become this person’s manager.” Faced with the situation of getting promoted, this belief will cause competing commitments: becoming a manager and maintaining the friendship. When stuck in a rigid perspective, it may be helpful to remind yourself that there are usually ways of resolving competing commitments that are not self-sabotaging, nor damaging to someone else.
Seen through another lens, deeply held beliefs are old survival strategies. These are ways of operating that originally prevented negative consequences (shame, humiliation, physical harm), or brought rewards (positive reinforcement, a sense of belonging, safety). For example, “My success is contingent on not making other people uncomfortable” or “I must always be the person who speaks up, or others will get hurt.” The strategies that once served can become an achilles heel, undermining your ability to reach your goals. Unexamined, these beliefs can steer your actions in ways that do not align with what is most important to you.
Step Three: Make A Choice
With awareness of your emotional patterns, and the ability to see situations from multiple perspectives, you will be able to make choices with greater freedom and alignment with your values. While the framework is simple and straightforward, each of these steps can be complex when applied. In the follow on to this article, you will learn some of the common pitfalls leaders encounter when navigating the complicated territory of human emotion and interaction, and important distinctions that will promote even greater clarity and skill when applying this framework.
More “work” happens on the emotional level than you think! While we consider ourselves to be fundamentally rational human beings, our choices are largely driven by emotion. Building awareness of your own emotional patterns and actively taking different perspectives will lead you to make better choices. Using this three part framework, you can cultivate the ability to take action from an emotionally stable and robust stance. You can promote creativity, collaboration and accountability while maintaining the high bar of excellence that got you here in the first place!