Take this thought experiment: Would you prefer a hamburger that is 90% fat-free or one that has 10% fat? Would you support a project with a 1 in 5 chance of succeeding, or a project with an 80% chance of failing? Despite both options being equivalent, I would avoid the 10% fat laden burger, and pass on the project that had an 80% chance of failing! These are examples of how frames of reference influence us.
Most of the coaching requests that I receive revolve around emotional intelligence: clients are described as lacking self-awareness, or are unable to control their impulses, or don’t empathize with others. But what if this diagnosis is only half correct: What if many leadership deficiencies are rooted in shortcomings of critical thinking? According to the Foundation of Critical Thinking there are three components:
I hate to say it, but several people I work with have annoying habits. Some interrupt too much, some don’t say what’s really on their minds, some are so detail-oriented they make my teeth ache. But I too inflict an annoying habit on others: I often indirectly ask for recognition. This ‘addiction to approval’ is a habit I’d like to break. What’s wrong with seeking approval? Not much if done in small doses, but I’ve become dependent. Do I really need to ask my wife to praise me for taking the trashcans to the curb? Yes. So with the idea that I am not the only person on earth cursed with this affliction, I herein submit my self-improvement process. Perhaps you or others might benefit from my efforts: I’ve tried unsuccessfully to stop asking for recognition before, so I sought help from Carrie, one of my coaching colleagues. Her challenging questions and insights yielded surprising results.
I feel like I’m losing my mind from the mega-buzz surrounding mindfulness lately. Many companies, including Google and Target, are investing in mindfulness training for their employees. The National Institute of Health is pouring millions to research the effect of mindfulness on depression, obesity, and even the common cold. Even the journal American Psychologist devoted its most recent special issue to the emergence of mindfulness in psychological science. The few of us uninitiated souls may wonder what this is all about, and even wonder what mindfulness is. Well here it is: Mindfulness is any practice used to focus on an object, such as one’s breath or a point in space, and then become aware when one’s mind has wandered, and then bring awareness back to the object. In other words: meditation.
I met with the head of the European region right after a daylong meeting of a global leadership team. I asked what he thought of the decisions the team had made. He said the meeting was “the usual nonsense. We nod our heads, and go back to our parts of the world and do whatever we want.” Another client, the leader of an IT function, was told to reduce headcount by 20% but not miss deadlines on high priority projects. Despite disagreeing with the wisdom of the decision, she laid off eight programmers. She then hired a flotilla of temporary programmers to meet her schedule targets. This ended up costing more and led to lower morale of the remaining employees.
The challenge for most executives is that the skills they developed as middle managers are inadequate for the next step up. They know their business, have mastered supervision, and have honed their decision-making skills. But what’s often missing is a mental framework for becoming a more strategic leader. One way we help leaders develop their strategic thinking muscle is through the use of experiential exercises. In just a short time, these activities allow participants in leadership development programs to make decisions in a safe environment that reveal flawed “mental models” while they develop new mindsets.
Leading organizational change without first changing ourselves simply doesn’t work. To enable change beyond superficial window-dressing, we must understand what we are doing to maintain the status quo. The enemy of change is often looking at us in the mirror. To lead change effectively, we need the courage to look back. Rick, the CEO of a consumer products company, complained that his highly paid vice presidents bounced decisions to him that they should have made on their own. This prevented him fulfilling the strategic aspect of his role, which included identifying acquisitions that would fuel growth. Instead, Rick spent much of his time resolving internal squabbles. Ironically, his key lieutenants voiced similar complaints – their own direct reports bickered constantly and rarely made decisions without ‘delegating upward.’ This slowed down the pace of new product introductions and stymied innovation.