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This one leadership hack makes a bigger impact than any other
In high school, I was universally hated.
Perhaps that’s too strong a statement, but that’s how I felt, so it tells you something useful about what I went through. Almost universally disliked is probably more accurate. And I do like accuracy.
To be fair there were instances of hate, which meant I was bullied, physically and emotionally. It was hard for me to come to terms with at the time. I knew deep down that I wasn’t doing anything wrong. I was just being me, authentically, and it was rubbing people up the wrong way.
Today, I’m still authentically me, however I feel very different. I very rarely feel hated. I like people and they seem to like me. I’ve had a successful career as a leader, coach and mentor. I’ve had many fulfilling and meaningful personal relationships also.
So what changed?
In high school I was a geek. Still am really. So, it’s not that. I was an introvert, but not shy. The same is true today.
I was a deep thinker, and highly opinionated (INTJ for those who know their Myers-Briggs personality types). Still am.
As an opinionated thinker, I know what I consider to be correct. And that’s important to me. As is a sense of fair play and mutual respect. I don’t expect others to agree with me, but they should be able to defend their perspective. Ultimately, I’m perfectly happy for them to hold their own point of view and I respect them for it. Always have.
So if I’m fundamentally the same person I was, what changed must have been fairly superficial right? The same content just delivered differently?
In a sense, yes. It seems superficial. The delivery definitely changed. And the content is still the same. But to deliver my content differently took significant shifts in the mindsets underneath.
For example, back at high school I assumed everyone else was like me, deep thinkers and highly opinionated.
So I didn’t hold back. I was open, honest and very direct. And I expected the same from others.
I saw no reason why we couldn’t have a robust discussion about our differing beliefs and then just carry on with being friends. In fact, I naively believed this sort of reciprocal honesty would bring us closer together, not further apart.
So when this backfired on me repeatedly I was stumped. I couldn’t work out what the problem was, I had no idea why I was being punished.
In an effort to address the issues I was facing, my parents and I decided I would switch schools for the final two years of high school. Perhaps it was just the students at that school?
A fair assumption at the time. After all, I wasn’t doing anything wrong!
New school—another great school—filled with wonderful students and teachers. My fellow students seemed like nice people and were warm, welcoming and friendly.
At least initially. It didn’t take long before they got to know me. It didn’t take long before I was again: Almost universally disliked and bullied.
Its not you, it’s me
This was a crushing experience. I was distraught. Why was this happening again??
I had removed all other variables. So I had to face a hard reality: The constant here is me.
I started to realise my opinions, relentless commitment to accuracy and direct communication was offending many of my fellow students, or making them feel insecure about their opinions. When I corrected them or my perspective was different to theirs, they felt judged. My authentic self was seen as a threat!
Even once I started to realise the problem, I felt like I wasn’t doing anything wrong. My sense of fair play told me that they were taking the wrong approach, and they (all) needed to change to embrace honesty and directness and not be so sensitive.
So first I had to make a decision. The world wasn’t going to change to accommodate me better. So I needed to take responsibility for changing and doing what I could to influence the world and those around me for better outcomes.
That was a crucial mindset shift. And one I still see people struggle with in the workplace today:
It may not be our fault, or our responsibility, but it’s impacting us negatively, so what can we do to influence the situation for the better?
A useful mindset
But the biggest revelation came when I then tried to work out what the solution to my problem was.
I continued with an experimental, scientific approach to decoding these strange interactions that I was having and those I saw others having. I’d hypothesise an approach that might work, change the way I communicated, what I said, when, and how I said it and observed the results.
- If I focused on correcting people. They would take it personally, and be embarrassed especially in front of others. And then I’d lost them, it didn’t matter how good my argument was, their goal had changed. Their goal was no longer to have a conversation, it was to destroy me and even the score.
- My direct communication was having a similar effect. I was bruising people’s egos and at best, they were distracted from the conversation. At worst, they were now my mortal enemies.
Tactics that worked well included:
- Letting people say what they had to say first before I chimed in.
- Acknowledging and agreeing with at least parts of what they said.
- Only actively disagreeing with something if I was in 180 degree opposition and only if it was important to the point I was trying to communicate.
From the tactics that performed well I started to piece together heuristics and patterns for building rapport, communicating my perspective without offending and eventually influencing and persuading people while preserving the relationship.
- Don’t assume people are out to get you, give them the benefit of the doubt. At least initially.
- Don’t bluntly correct someone. Understand their assumptions and thought processes first. They might have seen something you missed.
- Emotions are more powerful than logic, you must be aware of them and deal with them first.
Eventually, these heuristics started to blend together. And ultimately distilled down into a single overarching principle…
USEFUL > CORRECT
In other words: Don’t focus on what’s correct, focus on what’s useful.
Building rapport and influence
It became a mantra that I would apply over and over again in different situations. And it was always useful (by definition). It also always provided the most efficient path through to what was correct, as this is still the goal. Sometimes pushing straight to what’s correct will be what’s most useful, other times, it will need to wait.
It’s also important to be open to your understanding of what’s correct changing during the interaction—and that’s ok, as Sam Harris puts it “I don’t want to be wrong for a moment longer than I need to be”.
- If someone says something that’s not strictly correct, first think: Is it useful that I correct them right now? Will the conversation fail if I don’t correct them right away? If the answer is no, let it go and refocus on moving the conversation forwards.
- It also applies to fairness: If someone does something you think isn’t fair. Ask yourself, is it useful that I right the wrong? Is it important that I balance the imbalance right now? If not, let it go and work out what is important. Knowing that you might come back to address this later.
- Unless it’s harming the flow of your current conversation, and therefore needs to be rectified right now, let people believe what they believe. If you need to address it later, you get the opportunity to address it offline, in a less-public forum, with less chance of bruising egos and destroying the relationship.
- Don’t get me wrong, disagreement is an important tool in establishing healthy boundaries in a relationship, but use disagreement and correction strategically as a boundary-setting tool, not as a default response.
Ultimately, focusing on what’s useful over what’s correct just means conversation flow is more important than dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’ right now.
EQ vs IQ
It turns out I was learning about Emotional Intelligence (EQ) the hard way.
But research shows both are important and valuable in the workplace. It’s not enough to have one or the other, we need to balance both.
How do we do that?
At a very high level I like to think about IQ as being a focus on what’s correct. And EQ as being a focus on what’s useful.
To balance IQ and EQ, start with what’s useful, then move to what’s correct (when that becomes what’s useful now).
How do you know when that is?
It takes practice, experimentation and self-reflection and it’s a never-ending process of refinement and adaptation. After all, people, culture, social norms and the world around us keep on moving.
But if you remember this mantra and put it into action as part of daily interactions, it won’t take long before you’ll see the results:
- You’ll find it easier to influence people and keep them on-board with your vision
- Improved relationships which make it easier and less stressful to do business longer term
- Increased engagement of staff and colleagues resulting in better overall performance
You might also find it improves relationships at home or in your personal life too.