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The first thing organizations may think of when they want to develop their leaders is management training. While this is an excellent strategy for gaining the basics of leadership, the difference between adequate managers and truly inspiring leaders has more to do with their development as human beings.
The CEO of a very well-known and successful organization that I consulted for had a clear vision for his company and culture. His values were clear and stated well: A speak-up culture that demonstrates a safe environment in which people are open to sharing their ideas, recommendations, feedback and diverse creativity.
That same CEO was in a meeting with his direct reports when one of his team members proposed a new process in response to a previous situation that had caused confusion and a communication breakdown. This past incident involved the CEO but wasn’t caused by the CEO. Yet the CEO quickly became upset, taking this suggestion as a personal afront rather than simply a neutral change in process.
Even though the CEO was a very high-powered leader who regularly dealt with top national politicians, dignitaries and the most famous people in the entertainment business, he was not immune to his ego getting bruised. In that moment, he took a minor incident personally and reacted irrationally, causing distrust and fear within his organization.
As human beings, we are all vulnerable to having our egos bruised. There’s no fault in that. However, the CEO’s reaction created the opposite result of the “speak-up culture” he strongly valued and was trying to create.
We teach people how to respond to us.
We can ask people to be open, to ask for help and to share their ideas, but if our response to that vulnerability comes from our ego’s need for control, power or perfection, we can inadvertently shut others down.
If we want openness from our direct reports and peers, we must look at our own reactions, behaviors and communication to determine if we are teaching people to respond to us in a way that we don’t desire. If so, we need to apologize, commit to a different approach and ask for support for when we return to old habits.
Outer experience is a reflection of inner reality.
When I was growing up, my dad was quick to point out when I wasn’t able to do things with ease or with a high degree of competence. He wasn’t trying to be mean or harsh; he was just trying to be helpful. But when I was a young kid, I internalized these comments as a critical inner voice that told me I wasn’t good enough and didn’t measure up to others.
As I got older and began leading and facilitating groups, whenever a concept or idea I was sharing got challenged, I would get defensive and justify my point of view in a desperate need to feel validated and seen as effective or right. Of course, my reaction only diminished my sense of confidence, credibility and career growth.
I was going into automatic response because I was emotionally triggered by self-doubt and a desire for validation. No management training program could address this inner negative thought pattern that needed to be healed, and it could not be solved by a communication process or technique.
While I still struggle not to take things personally, I am better at recognizing those uncomfortable feelings, slowing the conversation down, taking ownership for my self-judgments and responding with curiosity-based questions rather than a defensive reaction. I can now listen with greater empathy and curiosity and seek mutually satisfying solutions to problems.
Four Steps For Targeting Personal Areas For Growth And Transformation
1. Being Courageously Curious
The first step is awareness of what reactions you have that can tend to shut people down. You may have a sense of this, but if you don’t, it’s okay to ask the people around you to give you feedback on anything you do that they find intimidating, dismissive or avoidant.
2. Gaining Guidance
Seek out someone who is not only a fit for your style but who can also challenge you directly in a way that doesn’t feel judgmental. This is a person who can help you get in touch with the source of your reactions and can help you reframe the story you’re telling yourself that caused you to develop the defense mechanism in the first place.
3. Changing Habits
Any pattern that you have developed and used automatically for years probably won’t change overnight. The first step is to become aware of it—and then to try to catch it earlier and earlier. Ultimately, you will get to the point where you might react internally for just a few moments but can respond outwardly with more patience, compassion and clarity or step away from the situation to find neutrality before responding. You may even get to a point where you no longer react at all, and the old triggering situation is no longer a trigger.
4. Asking For Help
While you are in the process of changing your habits, it’s highly advised to get help from those you are in closest relationship with. Let them know you are aware of how you stimulate uncomfortable conversations, with the clear desire to change that. Ask them to support you by giving you a safe sign or way for them to let you know when they perceive you in a reactive state. You will have to decide how they can best let you know in a way that doesn’t exacerbate the issue. For example, one of my clients had his team give him a time-out signal rather than saying directly that he was getting defensive.
As you overcome your triggering reactions, you not only become a more effective leader, communicator and team member but you also gain the freedom to be your “best self” more often.
Check out Mark Samuel’s book
Check out Making Yourself Indispensable: The Power of Personal Accountability by Mark Samuel to get a jump start on your personal development journey as it relates to business and leadership.
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This article was originally published as a Forbes Coaches Council Post.