This is a guest post by Karen Martin, president of the global consulting firm TKMG, Inc. Her latest book, Clarity First, outlines specific actions to dramatically improve organizational and individual performance.
Most leaders agree, it’s important to have clear ideas about the issues that matter to them and their organizations. Yet, leaders are praised far more often for making quick decisions than for thinking clearly.
In such a fast-paced, noisy world, leaders understandably feel the pressure to think and act fast—but this can be to their detriment. Today, more so than ever, it’s critical to give oneself the time needed to assess a situation fully, gather on-point information, and develop a thoughtful position.
Not convinced? Think of it this way: clear thought is a precursor to making good decisions, acting decisively, solving problems, and seizing opportunities in a way that consistently fulfills the organization’s goals.
But, as most leaders will attest, this is much easier said than done. You have to be patient and possess disciplined thinking habits.
Here are three ways to start:
Mindfulness means paying attention purposefully, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally. It’s a state of being that allows its practitioners to lead with greater clarity by developing a calmer and more focused mind. It introduces a pause between receipt of information and your reaction to it, and it slows thinking processes enough that they become observable.
Mindfulness and the practice of mindfulness meditation is a trending topic in leadership and management literature for good reason: there’s a growing body of scientific evidence showing that mindfulness meditation changes the brain in a powerful, performance-enhancing way. It develops areas of your brain responsible for self-regulation, allowing you to more effectively place your attention where you want it, regulate your mood, and manage your response to information.
Here’s another bonus of mindfulness: it helps create more healthful stress responses and more effective ways for the brain to process large volumes of inputs.
“Mindfulness helps create more healthful stress responses and more effective ways for the brain to process large volumes of inputs.” -Karen Martin
If you’re an artist or creative with a burning desire to launch something, Anna has been there. She built her business from scratch, one customer at a time, and has valuable lessons for anyone who wants to build something enduring.
“Living unconventionally comes at a cost.” – Anna Sabino
In the opening of your book, you talk about all that’s now available but then you say that “there are still things that can crush our creativity if we let them.” As you built your businesses, how did you overcome those things?
It’s up to us to decide what to pay attention to. Unfortunately, very often we tend to be attracted to dissatisfaction, so we notice people and things that make us feel inadequate. There are always going to be those who started earlier, have more resources and have achieved more, but we have our own creative path to follow – limiting distractions and staying on it is something that we should all strive for.
So, yes, we can crush our own creativity and flow if we choose to focus on dissatisfaction. Being aware that we’re doing it is a step closer to taking advantage of our full potential and starting to step into our greatness.
“Get comfortable with the process, it’s not important how long the process will take if the result is sustainable.” – Anna Sabino
I appreciate your take on discomfort and its importance to achievement and success. Would you share your philosophy with those who haven’t read your book?
Our entrepreneurial path is far from being straight. It has curves and roadblocks. Sometimes we have to stay in the discomfort for a very long time not knowing when or if the breakthrough will ever come. Most are scared of this insecurity and quit, sometimes right before succeeding.
When we put our heart into any project or career design, at first we are at zero with zero followers, readers and zero customers. Then our hard work makes us advance. However, the progress happens inch by inch. Those who want the miles and are disappointed by “the work input versus the result unfairness” get out of the game. They join a different game where all the pieces have been laid out for them, and they can securely step in and ride the wave of that success. It’s not their own, but to them success may be the security that they now have.
Definitions of success are very personal, but every success comes with its own territory. You’ll never like all the colors that it presents, but it’s crucial to realize what truly matters most to us and know that we’ll have to make some sacrifice to achieve our success and maintain it.
“We’ve always put talent on a pedestal but it’s actually its application that matters.” – Anna Sabino
It seems easy enough. Hire talented people who are motivated to achieve something and together the team is formed.
What could go wrong?
Most of us who have been in leadership positions realize that building a team is far more difficult than hiring talented individuals.
It’s a process. From understanding individual styles to improving communication, it’s a constant effort.
That’s why nearly every leader I know is constantly working on the team.
One of the experts I follow is Robert Bruce Shaw. He’s a management consultant focused on leadership effectiveness. He has a doctorate in organizational behavior from Yale University and has written numerous books and articles.
What are some of the elements of a highly successful team?
I assess a team’s success on two dimensions. First, does the team deliver the results expected of it by its customers and stakeholders (in most cases, more senior levels of management within a company). Does it deliver results in a manner that builds its capabilities in order to deliver results as well into the future? Second, does the team build positive relationships among its members as well as with other groups? This is required to sustain the trust needed for a team to work in a productive manner over time. These are the two team imperatives: deliver results and build relationships.
What’s an extreme team?
Teams that continually push for better results and relationships are what I call extreme teams. Most teams work in a manner that emphasizes either results or relationships – and fail to develop each as an important outcome. In addition, some teams settle for easy compromises in each area in striving to avoid the risk and conflict that can come when pushing hard in either area. For example, a team that pushes hard on results can strain relationships. Or, a team that values only relationships can erode its ability to deliver results. Extreme Teams push results and relationships to the edge of being dysfunctional – and then effectively manage the challenge of doing so.
“Results + Relationships = Team Success.” -Robert Bruce Shaw
How do leaders help foster a culture where extreme teams thrive?
My book examines five practices of cutting-edge firms that support extreme teams. These firms are unique in how they operate but do share some common practices. I will mention three of these success practices:
1) They have a purpose that results in highly engaged team members. This purpose involves the work itself but also includes having a positive impact on society. Pixar, for example, attracts people who are passionate about making animated films that emotionally touch people. Patagonia attracts people who love the outdoors and want to do everything they can to protect the environment.
2) They select and promote people who embody their core values. Cultural fit becomes more important than an impressive resume. Alibaba looks for people who fit its highly entrepreneurial culture. The firm’s founder, Jack Ma, describes this as finding the right people not the best people.
3) They create a “hard/soft” culture that works against complacency. In extreme teams, people realize that they need to be uncomfortable at times if they are to produce the best results. This need is balanced against the need for people to feel they are part of community that supports them and their success. Each firm I profile in the book does this to a different degree and with different practices. Each, however, is more transparent and direct than conventional teams.
“Cutting edge firms have a critical mass of obsessive people and teams.” -Robert Bruce Shaw
Since I have long been interested in helping people push past what’s comfortable, I found his new book particularly intriguing. After reading it, I am sure that you will find his work as actionable as I have. I spoke with Andy recently about his new book.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” -Neale Donald Walsch
What keeps people safely ensconced inside their comfort zones?
I’ve found five specific reasons, and I call them psychological roadblocks or barriers. The first is the Authenticity Challenge: It’s the idea that acting outside your comfort zone can feel fake, foreign, and false. The second is the Competence Challenge: In addition to feeling inauthentic, you can also feel like you don’t have the ability to be successful in a situation outside your comfort zone. The third roadblock is what I call the Resentment Challenge: Even if people logically know that they need to change their behavior to be effective in a new situation, they may feel resentful or frustrated about having to stretch beyond where they’re comfortable. Roadblock #4 is the Likeability Challenge: One of the greatest worries people feel when stretching outside their comfort zones is whether people will like this new version of themselves. Finally, Roadblock #5 is the Morality Challenge: In certain instances, people can have legitimate concerns about the morality of the behavior they’re about to perform. Of course people don’t necessarily experience each of these roadblocks each time they attempt to act outside their comfort zones. However, even one or two roadblocks can be enough to keep people fully ensconced within their comfort zones.
Do most people know which one is their challenge?
When we’re afraid of something, we often just feel “worried” or “fearful.” And not really knowing or understanding where the discomfort actually comes from just compounds the problem. But what I find is that when people can apply this framework of psychological roadblocks to their lives, they have a much clearer way to make sense of their experience – and that gives them a sense of control over something that previously felt confusing or overwhelming.
“The best things in life are often waiting for you at the exit ramp of your comfort zone.” -Karen Salmansohn
The vicious cycle of avoidance is one we’ve all participated in or watched to varying degrees. What’s the best way to stop the cycle and get back on the right path?
So many of us encounter this trap: We avoid something outside our comfort zone – and feel quite relieved. But then the next time around, it’s just that much harder. To stop the cycle, you have to have a deep sense of purpose that the “pain” is worth the “gain” – that whatever it is you’re contemplating outside your comfort zone will contribute to your career or personal development — or enable you to help others and make a difference. And what’s critical is that this source of conviction is authentic and meaningful to you. When you have conviction and motivation, you’ll have the power to say yes when every bone in your body is aching to say no.
One of the most important skills today is the ability to be comfortable with being a novice. The world is changing so fast that new skills and knowledge make all of us feel uncomfortable. Embracing our inner novice, being comfortable with being uncomfortable, and accepting being bad at something on the way to mastering it is the most important way to stay ahead.
“The ability to learn quickly is the most important skill to have.” –Erika Andersen
Erika Andersen is the founding partner of Proteus, a firm that focuses on leader readiness. She’s the author of three other books: Leading So People Will Follow, Being Strategic, and Growing Great Employees. All of her books are full of actionable advice from her three decades of advising and coaching executives.
I recently had the opportunity to talk with Erika about her research into being comfortable with being continuously uncomfortable.
Be Bad First
What does it mean to be bad first?
It means being willing to go back to being a novice – to being not-good at new things – over and over again. As we move through our lives, it becomes increasingly challenging to accept the need to “be bad first.” We come to rely on and identify with our expertise; we get used to being treated as knowledgeable and experienced. To have to go back to being a beginner in order to acquire new skills and knowledge – especially in the public setting of work, in full view of our employees, bosses, and sometimes our customers – can be scary, embarrassing and frustrating. I wrote Be Bad First because I’ve come to believe that in order to succeed in this ever-changing world, you must be able to learn new things continuously and well – and that requires, among other things, getting good at being bad first.
There’s a generational change from Boomers and Gen-X to Millennials that is also at play. How do different generations react to this concept?
Generally, we’ve found it’s somewhat easier for younger folks to be bad first in the service of learning new skills. They tend to be still in the process of developing their expertise and are often therefore less “stuck” in what they already know. Also, most Millennials have grown up experiencing daily change in technology, communication, society, and business – for them, keeping up with ever-accelerating change has been the norm for their whole lives. However, many Millennials have a hard time with other aspects of new learning – especially Aspiration and Neutral Self-Awareness.
4 Mental Skills for Learning
1. Develop Aspiration
Let’s talk about your ANEW concept. A, for Aspiration, is the first step.
The model at the core of Be Bad First consists of four mental skills for learning that we call ANEW: Aspiration, Neutral Self-Awareness, Endless Curiosity, and Willingness to Be Bad First. Becoming adept at these skills will allow you to be a high-payoff learner, a master of mastery.
Aspiration means, quite simply, wanting something that you don’t now have. In terms of learning, aspiration is key because we only learn the things we want to learn. For instance, you can say over and over that you want to learn Spanish – but if you don’t make the required effort, it means you don’t really want to do it.
“Great learners unearth and then build their aspiration.” –Erika Andersen
I believe we often tell ourselves we want to do things because we worry that if we don’t actually want to, there’s nothing we can do about it. Fortunately, that’s not true. You can change your level of aspiration: you can make yourself want to do something. The secret is to identify benefits that are personally motivating to you of doing or learning that thing, and then envisioning a future where you’re reaping those benefits. (You may have noticed that you do this automatically when you do want to do something.)
So for example, if you decided to ramp up your aspiration to learn Spanish, you’d think about ways in which you might benefit from doing that – and perhaps the one that really resonates for you is that it would enable you to be a part of the team that’s expanding your company into the Chilean market. You imagine yourself in a couple of years, on that team, living in Santiago and building new business. If that’s personally exciting to you, I suspect you’ll suddenly find yourself taking real steps to improve your Spanish.
By the way, the problem many Millennials have with Aspiration is their belief that wanting or not wanting to do things is permanent and unchangeable – and they tend to reinforce their not-wanting by saying things like “No, I don’t want to – it’s just not me.” However, I’ve worked with Millennials for whom the idea that they can consciously change their level of “wanting” is hugely liberating, once they accept it.
2. Cultivate Neutral Self-Awareness
N, Neutral Self-Awareness. That one grabbed my attention. I think all of us have witnessed someone who is completely unaware of something – thinking they have a strength when everyone else knows it is a weakness. What’s the best way to see yourself objectively?
Wonderful question! The place to start, when trying to become more neutrally self-aware, is to note how you’re talking to yourself about yourself. Our self-awareness (or lack thereof) lives in our mental monologue. We’re continually commenting on ourselves internally: I’m great at that – I’m terrible at that – I used to be good at that, but I’ve lost the knack – I’m terrified of trying new things – I don’t mind making mistakes – I’m a slow learner – I’m the smartest guy in the room – I already know that…. You get the idea. Sadly, this internal commentary can often be dead wrong – and we tend to accept it without question because it’s happening inside our own head, most often beneath our conscious awareness. It’s like subliminal advertising!
So the way to become more self-aware is to recognize and question what you’re saying to yourself about yourself. For example, let’s say your boss tells you that you need to get better at delivering tough news to your employees. Perhaps your first thought is, What? I’m good at that. I may not be as direct as my boss would like, but at least I don’t make my folks feel bad.
Once you notice that you’re saying this to yourself, rather than just accepting it as true, ask yourself, Is that accurate? That has the effect of taking you “off automatic” and causing you to examine your beliefs about yourself more consciously. You might then realize that you don’t really know if your self-talk is accurate. So then you ask yourself, What facts do I have in this area? You might then remember that one person on your team has been consistently missing deadlines, and you’ve been “waiting for the right time to mention it” for months. Or that quite often when you think you’re being clear with employees about changes you want them to make in their behavior, they don’t seem to get the message. Now your self-talk about where you’re starting from in this area might shift to something like, I can see my boss’ point – I don’t seem to be very good at communicating difficult messages in a way that works.
And you notice, in this example, that as your self-talk becomes more accurate, you’re more neutrally self-aware, and better able to understand and accept what you need to learn.
(Many Millennials have a hard time with this because their parents have told them they’re great at everything, so their self-talk about their current strengths and weaknesses in areas of new learning is both woefully inaccurate and somewhat “stuck.” However, this same approach to recognizing and managing their self-talk is equally effective if they buy the core premise of needing to get more neutrally self-aware.)
“Accurate self-talk frees the brain to focus on learning.” –Erika Andersen