Forgiveness to Change, Part 2

In my prior blog post I wrote about the role that the absence of forgiveness can play in motivating people to embrace change. Basically, I made the point that some people may be uninterested in moving forward because they choose to remain stuck in lingering resentments from a past perceived offense.

In such cases, it’s crucial to understand that forgiveness is a choice. It is something that one party gives to another. Forgiveness can’t be demanded nor can it be coerced. You are also dealing with personal experience and emotions that won’t be overcome by persuasive arguments. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this problem when it exists. However, there are some general principles that can be applied at both a one-to-one conversational level as well as at a broader team/organizational level.

Listen with empathy. What people often want to do with their anger is share it with somebody that they feel cares. While listening you are also perspective taking – seeing their situation from their vantage point rather than your evaluation of them from your vantage point. This will help you to gain an understanding of why they are feeling and acting in a certain way, and it may also breed some compassion for them. The key idea is to meet their anger and resentment with compassion.

Invite their help in ways where they feel valued. When you listen with empathy you may get insight into what matters most to them and clues to their intrinsic motives. Who doesn’t respond with great energy and enthusiasm to, “I really need your help with [something I know you’re really good at/interested in].” The key idea is to meet their anger and resentment with appreciation.

Be authentically vulnerable regarding past challenges. Vulnerability isn’t weakness. Vulnerability is openness that makes you more approachable, more trusted and more influential. Therefore, inspirational appeals for change should not just be, “Rah-rah we can do it!” Acknowledging the reality of the past – “I recognize that was harder than we thought and we could have done some things better to help you” – may actually be the point where people choose to change their mindset. The key idea is to meet anger and resentment not with disregard or defensiveness but with transparency.

While it’s crucial for leaders to inspire passion for looking ahead, they also must realistically bear in mind that some followers are looking back at issues that they haven’t forgiven the leaders for. Sometimes the key to moving followers forward isn’t selling them on the benefits of the future but helping them release their resentments from the past.

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Forgiveness to Change, Part 1

A metaphor I like to use for describing what leaders need to do to create change is that of a golfer. To successfully execute a golf shot, a golfer needs to look two ways. They need to look down to understand how the ball’s current position impacts the available options as to where it can go, as well as the risk vs. reward tradeoffs inherent in those options. A golfer also needs to look up to determine where they want the next shot to land. The “look up” deals with vision. The “look down” deals with current reality.

There is one look that the best golfers don’t allow to influence their next shot and that is the look back. In other words, while they learn from their past mistakes, they are also quickly forgiving of them.

Forgive: stop feeling angry or resentful toward (someone) for an offense, flaw, or mistake[1].

I was inspired to think about the role of forgiveness in leading change by religious teacher Richard Rohr. Recently he wrote, “. . . to receive reality is always to bear with it for not meeting all of our needs. To accept reality is to forgive reality for being what it is . . . Without forgiveness nothing new happens, and we remain frozen in a small past [emphasis mine].” It occurred to me that one of the challenges leaders face is that while they are looking up with optimism at a transformed future, many followers are looking back with resentment at past offenses.

These offenses can be personal such as a raise/promotion/transfer/bonus/position they felt was warranted but not given. But they often also include past organizational mistakes they believe have been made:

  • “We used to care about the relationships with our customers but now it’s just about the numbers.”
  • “We’re not doing enough to retain our best people.”
  • “We’ve never been the same since [fill in the blank].”
  • “Why do “they” (some part of the organization) always think they know better than us?”

Whether it’s for personal or systemic reasons, many followers are living having not forgiven a reality that they believe didn’t meet their needs. As a result, rather than embrace change and a new future, they continue to look back in anger and resentment, and “remain frozen in a small past”, as Rohr says. Such people become pockets of resistance and negativity that can make change difficult more for emotional than tactical or strategic reasons.

So what is a leader or change catalyst to do? I’ll give some answers to that in Part 2.

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[1] Apple Dictionary

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Rules One, Two and Three

Recently I posted three “rules” on my social media sites that a LinkedIn member asked me to comment more on:

  • Rule #1: allow yourself to learn from smart people.
  • Rule #2: don’t allow yourself to be offended by stupid people.
  • Rule #3: sometimes the smart people are the ones who think very differently than you. They’re usually worth listening to.

These rules have several points of inspiration. One is an ancient proverb that says, “The one who loves a quarrel loves transgression; whoever builds his gate high invites destruction.”

This piece of ancient wisdom suggests a mindset that is useful in all situations when you are presented with points of view that are in opposition to your own. This is especially true amidst the recent onslaught of opinions being put forth on social media. It is actually the continual shouting of people taking sides against each other that was the stimulus for me to create these rules to better manage my own reactions.

The word transgression means an act that goes against a law, rule, or code of conduct; an offense. One way to think about this ancient axiom is that the person who loves to argue vehemently also loves to offend while demonstrating no concern for how they should conduct themselves. And what the second part of the proverb – whoever builds his gate high invites destruction – says to me is that the people who seek to defend what they believe they already know aren’t protecting themselves at all. In fact, they are inviting their own ruin!

Why? Most obviously, trying to influence someone’s point of view by offending them is hardly a winning strategy. Secondly, if I allow myself to believe my opinions are under attack, my natural inclination is to defend myself. Moreover, to the extent that these attacks are from people whose opinions won’t change – and yes, at those emotionally charged moments I’m thinking they’re being “stupid” – I’m defending myself in a battle of opinion that I cannot win. In this case, it’s better to follow Sun Tzu’s (The Art of War) advice, “If a battle cannot be won, do not fight it.” Finally, metaphorically defending myself with the proverb’s “high gate” prevents me from learning anything new. In today’s rapidly changing Information Age, those who refuse to learn get left behind.

A better approach, hence why it’s Rule #1, is to engage with people from whom you can sharpen your thinking by increasing your perspective. The old proverb relates to a more recent one – Steven Covey’s Habit 5 of successful people, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”

That can often come from intentionally seeking out the views of those that think differently than you. This is rule #3, which was inspired by an interview with billionaire entrepreneur Sean Parker, the co-creator of the pioneering music-sharing service Napster and ex-president of Facebook (and if these accomplishments aren’t enough, he was played by Justin Timberlake in the movie The Social Network­). When asked, “Who do you bounce ideas off of?” Parker responded, “People I’ve argued with. I think most of the things I’ve done so far were largely considered really unpopular or really fringe when I started doing them.” In other words, one of the most renowned innovators of our time isn’t successful by building “high gates” to protect his point of view. Rather, he influences others by lowering his gate to allow in others that can influence him.

Having others agree with my views on flags, people’s rights, names of sports teams, a new product strategy, or who to hire for a key position is not something I get to choose. But I cannot allow that lack of choice I have in what someone believes to become a distraction to me. What I can choose is to learn and grow in my own understanding by productively seeking intelligent points of view that enhance my perspective.

As Carl Rogers said, “The only person who is educated is the one who has learned how to learn and change.” And according to Einstein, to do that, “The important thing is not to stop questioning.”

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Wisdom from the C-Suite

It is ironic how often people hear from others (like me) about what great leaders do and how infrequently people hear from great leaders themselves about what they are actually doing! Recently, I did have that opportunity as part of a yearlong leadership development program I am co-facilitating.

Each year’s cohort begins with a dinner followed by a Q&A session with several members of the organization’s C-suite, including the CEO. The firm’s success as measured by its exceptional growth; profitability; high employee engagement and low turnover; and impact on the communities it serves across the country, are all a testament to the wisdom and insight of these leaders.

Here some nuggets I captured from that session:

  • Leaders need to be inquisitive and willing to keep learning. Furthermore, they need to be aggressive about finding new opportunities for learning.
  • It is of utmost importance to keep transmitting the culture as the company grows in size and complexity.
  • The reason “soft skills”, i.e. relationships matter in business is the value of spontaneous human interaction.
  • People when they are encouraged will do great things.
  • You can’t work with the people you want; you have to work with the people you have.
  • I’m not leading if I’m telling.
  • Vision emerges from the relationships that exist.
  • You can’t overvalue situational awareness.

Which one(s) of these speak to you? Which do you need to embrace?

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A Job to Love

Which was your favorite job?

A few weeks ago, my daughter asked me which of the two jobs from my younger days I liked more: selling audio equipment at an electronics store or cooking at a Howard Johnsons. After reflecting on the question for a bit I finally decided I couldn’t decide. I loved them both.

Why did I love them both? Because both jobs provided three of the most important reasons why you, me or anybody else would love their job:

  1. I was using my strengths, i.e. doings things I do best.
  2. I was appreciated and validated for my strengths.
  3. I was working with people I liked, not just at work but socially, too.

Why does using your strengths matter? People working in their area of strengths feel they are being authentic to who they already are rather than who their role requires them to be. Using your strengths means you will feel more expert in what you are doing, and more engaged and energized when you are doing it.

The strengths-based engagement is more than just about making people happy. It also means they get more work done. A Gallup survey[1] found that employees using their strengths were more productive, stayed in jobs longer, and produced greater customer satisfaction.

This leads to my second point. Because I was highly productive and I created satisfied customers, I got constant positive feedback. Research has consistently shown that people “flourish” – function at their best – in environments and relationships where positive comments of support, encouragement, appreciation are heard three times more often than negative comments (disapproval, sarcasm, cynicism). And in a study of 60 business units, the highest performing teams were those where positive comments were experienced five times more often than negative ones.[2]

Finally, because I was working with people I liked, I worked with great emotional safety and freedom in communication. That meant constructive feedback could be received knowing it was for my improvement. It also meant people expressed interest in each other. Research by Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy showed that the highest performing teams talked about themselves (individually or their group) less and advocated for other peoples’ or groups’ positions more frequently than their own.

What my daughter’s question proved to me – and I think should prove to you – is that our job satisfaction and performance isn’t based on what we are doing, or even how much we are paid to do it. It’s all about doing things we’re best at, receiving more support than criticism, and being around people who have your back.

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[1] Now, Discover Your Strengths, Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton

[2] The Role of Positivity and Connectivity in the Performance of Business Teams: A Nonlinear Dynamics Model, Marcial Losada and Emily Heaphy. American Behavioral Scientist 2004; 47; 740

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