I was looking for a particular book for a client and during my search in my library of way too many books, I spotted the book Art of Possibilities. I read it several years ago and have often recited some of my key learnings to leaders that I thought could benefit from Ben Zander’s approach to leadership.
As I thumbed through the book, one of Zander’s key concepts caught my attention – the downward spiral. That was it – the “thing” that my client was caught in. We had been discussing for months possible solutions for a very specific issue. Although we had brainstormed several potential solutions, it seemed each of them had major flaws or “just wouldn’t work”. I realized the leader was in a constant downward spiral and I had joined him. In case you’re wondering exactly what I mean by downward spiral – it is that tendency to get caught up in “what’s wrong” and “why it’s wrong” conversations thus spiraling into negativity. And when you are in a negative spiral, possibility doesn’t exist.
So how do you stop the spiral and get unstuck? Here are five ways to avoid the downward spiral:
- Recognize that you’re in a downward spiral. Some people don’t realize or not willing to admit that they are in a downward spiral. So a little self-awareness: if someone offers a potential solution, and you’re first thought or comment is how it will not work or the potential problems you already see, you could be in a downward spiral.
- Stop the negative chatter in your head. When you think about a problem, examine the facts. What are the concrete facts? When we judge people’s intent, character, and abilities, facts can become distorted and overstated.
- State the problem without assigning it to a person or particular group. Example: Joe and his team failed to meet their sales goal this month. Possible restatement: We had a sales goal of $____ and the month-end result was $____. In the first example, you can easily move into a downward spiral with a focus on Joe and the team. The second example, the facts speak for themselves and puts the emphasis on the goal. You want Joe and his team to make goal not spend energy and time trying to defend their character and abilities.
- Have a “possibility” brainstorming session with the team. Give everyone a 2-3 day notice to come to the session with suggestions and ideas about how to resolve the problem. The key to the success of this approach is to take all ideas/suggestions without any discussion of their potential or viability. This will keep the ideas/suggestions coming and prevents those downward spiral conversations. Once you get all the possibilities listed, then you look at viability. Again, keep the conversation centered on how you could make it work. Don’t allow anyone to “shoot holes” into the ideas. Those holes will become evident if they exist during the process. Narrow the ideas/suggestions to the top 2-3 and create an action plan.
- Once you create the action plan with the potential solutions, enroll people into the plan. A good way to create buy-in is to invite people to give frequent feedback on how the plan is going. Encourage them to speak-up if there is a need to “tweak” something.
- Celebrate the successes along the way and continually ask for input on ways to improve the workplace.
Often leaders wait too long to address a problem or is only made aware of a problem when it has reached a near crisis. This creates a stressful environment for everyone. And a stressful environment creates downward spirals. Good leaders create environments that exudes, “We are in this together.” When leadership and associates work as a team in an environment of trust and individual value – the possibilities are endless.