The life of a leader is hectic. Competing demands for time, complex business decisions to make, challenges that require immediate attention. With everything coming at them, leaders naturally look for the quickest way to solve problems. Unfortunately, in their haste to move on to the next thing, they sometimes solve the wrong problem. The consequences can be unnecessary confusion, lost time, and wasted resources. How to avoid this in your leadership life? Use critical thinking skills to slow down and make sure that you identify and solve the right problem.
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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:
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.
A manager who once told me that his goal for me was to find time for 20% open thinking time in my work day. At the time, I thought this was a silly concept considering I had so much to do and not enough time to do it. I was so busy with tasks that needed to get done. Coming from a strong work ethic background, it was actually hard for me to leave an open space in my schedule. I believed that being super busy was being the super employee. Clearly, this gift from my manager would take time and practice to understand and recognize the value.
A recent psychological study by UVA and Harvard found that people would rather be doing something – possibly even hurting themselves – than doing nothing or sitting alone with their thoughts. When faced with 6 to 15 minutes of time to think, many participants chose a mild electric shock rather than open time to think. “What is striking,” the investigators write, “is that simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock…” – Wow! I guess this time to think is a common challenge!
Today’s technology devices allow us to fill every minute to be sure to get the most “productivity” out of our day. Instant, endless messages are sent at every moment of every day. The impact of this constant barrage of activity leaves us unable to quiet down often leading to exhaustion and insomnia. It becomes so uncomfortable to just be still.
I decided that taking time to think was a critical part of my wellness. I started with small steps. On the suggestion of a friend, I tried to pause to take a deep breath before opening the car door…easy right? Definitely No. I was miles down the road before I remembered my resolve… even after many attempts. Clearly this would be a long journey to change for me.
After much time and effort, I am pleased to say that I really enjoy open time to think. I had to try lots of different approaches to find a few that work for me…and I had to turn off the cell phone. Considering the research referenced, it’s no surprise that the focus on wellness continues to grow.
Personally, I am amazed at how the time to think can energize creativity. Creativity doesn’t just take the form of some amazing idea. For me, creativity fills the space with options to do things differently. Many creative ideas have been tossed aside but some have made a real difference in finding a better way to accomplish a task, partner with a co-worker, or solve a problem.
So what have I learned about the value of taking time to think? I’m happier and more creative. I have more patience for great conversations and future possibilities. I don’t really know when I lost my skills for enjoying thinking time, but I’m even more appreciative now that I have it back. My wish for you is some wonderful and enjoyable time to think…with no electric shocks.
A leader without a plan or a plan without a leader simply won’t succeed. Great leaders match their passion for a future vision with the confidence and credibility that comes from strategic planning, in order to achieve that vision. To be successful in the long-term, your organization must have quality leadership and actionable strategy. So how do you help your organization define and manage an effective strategy? In this whitepaper, Barbara Higgins will provide you with practical ways to assess your organization, enhance your approach, and energize your role.
Often when I read a book I find myself thinking, “Some of that was strong food for thought and some of it was a little too much for me.” When that happens, I try focusing on what is relevant so there is still a meaningful take-away rather than disregarding the entire book. Authors write to their personal extreme passion, and it’s good to remember that you do not have to agree with everything that is being said to learn something.
Leaders are very similar. We lead out of our own personal passions and values. Whether or not we are always conscious of them, they are present in our leadership. These passions and values are very close cousins to our “hot buttons".
When our hot buttons are pushed, we can have a tendency to overreact or over-correct the situation just as an author may over-write to make their point. I find that overreacting or over-correcting frequently generates results opposite of what is really expected or desired.
Allow me to illustrate… A few weeks ago, I was driving home from a meeting. I am embarrassed to admit I leaned over to pick something up (not paying attention as I should) and, when I did, I slightly went off the road. Normally this would not be a big deal… I would simply correct and get back on; however, when you combine the fact that I was in deep thought, my cruise was on about 72 mph and the startle of hitting the rumble strip, a recipe for disaster was about to unfold.
When I hit the rumble strip, instead of a gentle warning the noise of the strips is intended to give, it shook me from my deep thought and seriously startled me. I overreacted! I swerved (or should I say jerked) the steering wheel to the right. In just a split second my car swerved to the other lane, and I over corrected again to the left. It was in just a second I realized, “I think I might flip this baby.” Fortunately for me (and thanks to my guardian angels) I was able to get the car back under control. Before you know it, everything was back to normal. I settled down, regained confidence and was back to cruising at 72 mph (I was paying much closer to attention though).
Later that evening I was telling my husband and a friend about what happened over dinner. As I explained it, I realized the parallel between what happened to me and what happens when a leader “over-corrects.”
As leaders we can get lost in the moment, in our personal passions, thus losing focus on the big picture and responding without thinking or over-responding to drive our point home. I realize as leaders, being able to respond in crisis is a highly desired trait, but I also realize that there are times we cause the crisis ourselves (such as I did) from over-correcting. Either way, whether the crisis is self-induced or caused by someone else, over-correcting is rarely the answer and usually results in disaster – or near disaster, just as it did when I was driving.
Have you ever over-corrected (over responded or overreacted) as a leader? A perfect example would be, the team is working under the pressure of a deadline (now 8 days past due), a tight budget, everyone is exhausted, you just got an email that the engineering team has not been able to correct the “bug” yet, stakeholders are calling and your lead engineer just called in sick. How do you respond?
Some of you from just reading this can feel your chest tightening. I am sure your story is a little different but the stress is the same. Below are some steps to help you process through over-correcting in difficult situations. I encourage you to take just a minute to go through the questions below – they will help you to be more proactive next time and hopefully reduce the crisis response of over-correcting:
As a first time supervisor, I was given lots of advice. Much of the advice was helpful and some of it – not so much. One thing that I was told by my new boss on my first day as a supervisor was, “never blindside your boss”. I was not quite sure what he meant but I promised that I would never blindside him. I was reminded of that advice recently when I was “blindsided” by some news. My first thought was how did I not see this coming? You set the path, you’re working hard, pushing for that goal. Then – the report drops on your desk, a member of your team drops in, you get a phone call from your boss/stakeholder. You’re blindsided! Why didn’t someone sound the alarm? Where was your team?
No one likes being blindsided. Here are some strategies that will keep you protected:
We all have been blindsided at some time and have questioned why others let us down. In reality it is often that we let them down. I am confident if you work toward these strategies, your team will watch and protect your blindside!
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