Complexity and Stressors
The current global pandemic has intensified VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous) conditions and leaders of knowledge workers must adapt quickly to the threats and opportunities present in changing market conditions, whilst ensuring that collaboration is effective amongst remote workers and that people stay engaged and motivated to achieve results.
Shifting to work from home, trying to stay well, caring for and home schooling children, and navigating the “new normal” caused by Covid-19 has been highly disruptive. Leaders have also had to respond to issues of systemic racism following the killing of George Floyd. Effective leadership is crucial right now given these factors.
Whilst responding to the external threats created by the pandemic has been a priority for leadership this year, it is equally important for leaders to pay attention to how they are interacting and behaving, given the increase of stressors upon them. Interpersonal behaviors must be as effective as strategic responses to Covid-19 to ensure success.
Most of the tech leaders that I partner with, to coach on their leadership development, started out as software developers and were high performing individual contributors (ICs) that were duly promoted into people management roles and then rose into senior leadership positions. It’s a given that this is a highly intelligent cohort of brilliant technologists.
As they take on higher levels of leadership, they must operate in increasingly complex environments, where highly developed interpersonal skills become crucial to getting stuff done. In terms of areas for development, it is routinely the case that our focus needs to be on how they show up in the world as people leaders, as opposed to building their tech capacities further.
In this article I outline 3 derailing behaviors that cause a great deal of damage to working alliances and what to do about them.
1. Not Listening
The classic example I see is of the busy leader at leadership meetings multi-tasking and responding to messages from their direct reports. They tune out to the speaker claiming, “Just gotta unblock this. It’s really important.” The inference being that the speaker and topic is not. If you’ve ever been not listened to in this way then you know exactly what it feels like, totally disrespectful. It’s a guaranteed goodwill killer and goodwill does make the world go round.
The fix involves 3 steps. 1. Shut laptop. 2. Turn off cell phone. 3. Give full attention to the speaker. Easy. Well actually the 3rd component requires a great deal of effort and focus. Giving full attention demonstrates respect for the speaker and their task at hand. It’s basic civility. Listen to the words they are saying. And listen for the words they are not saying. Listen to how they are saying the words. Their tone, the emotion, their body language and facial expressions. Listen to comprehend deeply. What are they meaning? How do they see the issues at hand? What can be learned from their perspective? This is an active process that requires attention, empathy and practice. Listening well leads to insight, understanding and synergy. Working alliances can be strengthened through effective listening.
Another example is the leader so focused on articulating their latest brilliant idea on what direction to take with an upcoming project, that they are incapable of actually listening and hearing their colleagues. Often they believe they are listening, but when their colleagues are talking, they are just thinking about what they will say next and why their colleagues are wrong and they are right. This is such a common derailer amongst tech leadership.
The fix here is to practice listening to your colleagues without judging their perspective. Be present and curious. Again listen to both the words and how they are saying the words. Inquire further with open questions to better understand their viewpoint. Summarize the main points that they have made and ask whether you have got it right. Then put forward your perspective. Explain the thinking behind your proposal and why you think it is the way to go. Invite their feedback. Be aware of holding onto your idea and the need to be right. Collaboration requires us to consider how can we integrate one person’s perspective with another’s, to strengthen the overall approach. 1+1=3, right? Finally ask how can we move forward together.
There will also be occasions, especially in working with direct reports, where the leader is best served by resisting the urge to improve upon the ideas of those they lead. Sometimes we need to let others go with their plan to maximize their motivation to execute.
2. Reacting, Not Responding
The second derailing interpersonal behavior I see tech leaders fall into is reacting when triggered and behaving angrily, which causes severe damage to interpersonal relationships. We all have our buttons that get pushed in working with other people in fast moving workplaces. That’s a given. When over-stressed, we too often rise to displays of frustration, anger, and at our worst, even contempt for our co-workers.
I often see repeated patterns, where leaders slide into cycles of reacting unhelpfully to the behavior of others and then attempt to explain, minimize or justify their ineffectual behaviors. The example that comes to mind is the leader who loses their cool when things “go wrong” and speaks whilst overwhelmed with anger at their direct reports. Being triggered and letting them know what you really think, rarely brings about good outcomes. People either tend to rise up to match the anger or withdraw to avoid the confrontation. None of this is helpful. Regardless of how people engage or disengage, the leader has lost their composure and probably the respect of their direct reports for being out of control. This behavior destroys mojo and psychological safety in an instant.
Daniel Goleman’s work on Emotional Intelligence highlights the importance of self-regulation for leaders, as their mood directly impacts their team through the process of mood contagion. The idea being that the emotional state of the leader is transferable to the people around them. Moods are transferred through an open loop system at the physiological level. If a leader is prone to outbursts of anger, then this will be transferred to the team and a toxic culture will develop. It’s only a matter of time until good people start leaving.
Anger as a feeling is not inherently wrong. It’s an emotion, signaling that something important is at stake. Avoiding the emotion of anger is not helpful, just as the inappropriate expression of anger is not. Susan David’s concept of Emotional Agility suggests in part that we should pay attention to the rising emotion, yet distance our self from it by naming it. For example, rather than exploding in anger or thinking I’m so angry because of what someone did, it is more effective to consider that in fact I’m simply experiencing the emotion of anger. Then we can chose how to respond based on our core values. This creates the space to consider an appropriate response, rather than just reacting automatically.
Viktor Frankl held that:
“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
In our example of the leader becoming triggered and speaking whilst angry, it is clear that they were reacting to the stimulus automatically. Often this is their default pattern of behavior. The fix here is to slow down and pause in the space after the stimulus, before they do anything else. Don’t talk. Don’t say a word when triggered. Just sit in the space and breathe. Let the feelings and thoughts arise and watch them pass. Our thoughts and emotions are transient. My personal technique is to breathe in through my left nostril and breathe out through my right nostril when I’m triggered. I learned this technique in a buddhist meditation program I undertook whilst still at law school. It works for me and for some reason makes me laugh too, which instantly takes the heat out of my reactions. Once we are composed we can then consider our response based on our values. It takes practice. And I’m still working at it 25 years later.
I’ll share this technique with clients and then try to set them up for success by seeking to habituate the new behavior. The most effective solution I’ve found is called if/then planning, as developed by Heidi Grant-Halvorson in her book 9 Things Successful People Do Differently. The idea is to plan exactly what to do when a certain situation arises. So in our example above, the leader could plan for their response to things “going wrong” so that they stop reacting with angry outbursts. An if/then plan might be: IF my direct reports bring mistakes to my attention, THEN I will breathe in and out, thank them for bringing it to my attention and focus on coaching them towards a solution and noting the learnings so the mistake is not repeated. It’s a win/win. Leaders can also set alerts to remind them to practice the if/then plan when meeting with others where there has been a history of outbursts. The alert acts as a cue to practice the behavior. When we are pulled in so many directions, it helps to have a system built in to remind us to experiment with adjustments to our default ways of behaving.
3. Being Too Competitive
The third derailing behavior I see tech leaders engage in is over indexing on competitiveness. Smart, successful people have often been highly rewarded throughout their lives for winning. They have received positive reinforcement from family and teachers for their grades at school and college, accolades and awards from success in competitive sports and then promotions, pay rises and increasing authority in the workplace for delivering results. They’ve been incentivized to win. There is nothing inherently wrong with this and leadership demands that we pay attention to results. The problem shows up when the leader is so conditioned to win, that they pursue it in every setting, oblivious to the damage it can cause.
When we see every interaction as an opportunity to win, then by default someone must lose. This behavior becomes toxic when we are engaging in ongoing, collaborative working relationships. Often the leader is unaware to the extent of the damage they are causing to productive and positive relationships.
We see this behavior in leaders who need to dominate discussions and who will argue the point, refusing to make valued concessions to their counterparts, in a war of attrition until they get their way. I once worked with a leader whose motto was “Nobody beats a Smith!”*. They were intelligent, successful and were being groomed to join the executive team. When I talked with their peers it became evident that people were avoiding engaging with them, developing work arounds to get stuff done without their involvement and forming silos to protect their turf from unwelcome intrusions. There was no collaboration at all. Smith was so conditioned to win that every interaction was a test for them to get their way, be right, and “win”!
The fix here involves getting the leader to understand that leadership is not about their individual successes, but about facilitating the success of their followers and that of their First Team, their peer level leaders. Seeking 360 feedback is useful to illuminate any blind spots and partnering with a trusted mentor or coach will enable self-reflection, commitment to change and accountability to follow through. After 6 months of coaching Smith’s motto shifted to “Nobody beats us!” They were finally operating as a committed member of their First Team and were back on track for promotion.
The VUCA operating environment, amplified by Covid-19, has caused acutely challenging times for leaders. As leaders consider how to manage the ongoing threats from the pandemic, they should also pay attention to any derailing interpersonal behaviors. The 3 common derailing behaviors identified in this article of not listening, reacting not responding and being too competitive, can be replaced with effective behavioral adjustments that build relationships, social capital and ensure that stuff really gets done as we face the new normal together.
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Wishing you well, Glenn.
*You guessed it. Smith was not their real name. It was Jones… Client details have been changed to maintain confidentiality.