“I’m stuck…. I can’t move,” my friend stammered, as he stood frozen trying to exit my open front door. Brent has Parkinson’s, a neurological disease that sends conflicting messages within his brain. One part of his brain knew the door was a safe passage to home.   Yet at the same time, another part of his brain perceived the door as a dangerous open window. This part of the brain sends directives to his legs to either stop or go.

After an awkward moment, Brent took surprising action. Leading with his head, he forced himself to fall forward through the doorway. His legs responded by trying desperately to catch up with his falling torso. And they did. Safely outside, he turned to me and said sheepishly, “Sometimes my brain has a mind of its own.”

Though I don’t have Parkinson’s, I’m all too familiar with times when my mind interferes with what my brain knows I should do. I rationally know that I should exercise daily, but my mind tells me that there are more important things to do.  And at work, there are times when my brain knows I should be bold and confront my coaching clients, yet my mind causes me to back off and take an indirect, less impactful approach.

But I’m not the only one: Every successful executive I coach deals with this internal conflict, and ironically, looks to me for a magic bullet to overcome it.

For example, one leader I work with wants to expand his scope of responsibility, yet he controls every decision to guarantee his group won’t make a mistake. His knee-jerk behavior forces him to load his calendar with approval reviews. He literally has no time or energy left for expanded responsibilities.

Another client is totally committed to creating an open environment that encourages innovation, yet she can’t help but expose a flaw in every idea that surfaces around her. As a result, her team performs its duties perfectly, month after month. Yet innovation is a non-starter. After all, her team learned that sharing a new idea results in rejection or thankless extra work to hone, revise, or otherwise suck out its life.

For my clients, the problem is not lack of skill. My clients know howto delegate, and howto encourage others’ ideas. But like Brent, their issue is how to fall through that door when their brain says otherwise.

So what’s going on here?

Our brains have minds of their own. At an early age, we instill beliefs in these minds that certain ‘noble’ principles must be maintained: be careful, be perfect, never fail, don’t let other’s fail, and even don’t walk through open windows.  This mind holds fast to its belief systems as if they are unshakeable truths. It’s as if we all carry an overprotective mother in our heads. She shrieks, “Watch out!” any time we initiate an action that conflicts with her rules, even though our rational brain knows better.

Worse, this “mother’s mind” causes our brains to release chemicals which we experience as anxiety or fear. And since our emotions are real, we tend to believe them, and act out of them… even if they don’t make sense.

Falling forward IS the strategy

Brent has had the benefit of Parkinson’s to teach him that certain signals from his mind can’t be trusted. He uses his rational brain to overrule those signals, and even puts his body at risk to fall forward, confident that it’s the right thing to do. He knows that his legs will catch him.

When working with clients, I’ve learned to help them use their rational brain to better understand what’s holding them back. I help them:

  • Explore their “mother’s mind: What is the rule they are challenging? For my controlling client, he felt that he wasn’t being responsible if he didn’t have a hand in every decision. For my innovation killer, she couldn’t bear to support an idea that wasn’t perfect.
  • Clarify the potential payoff of breaking the rule, and the cost of giving in to it.
  • Consciously chose, in the safety of an exploratory conversation
  • Anticipate the emotion that will occur when they act on the choice they make, and prepare to experience the emotion without letting it govern their behavior
  • Fall forward