A colleague and I were recently meeting with a CEO and his leadership team, observing them as they discussed how to improve their annual planning process. As the team of ten explored their current process, the conversation got heated. The team had been talking for 45 minutes, but it wasn’t clear who was leading the discussion or what their objectives were. Many comments were off-topic, and they were not getting closer to answers.
We paused the meeting and posed this question: How are you reacting to this conversation and what in you is causing your reaction?
We were met with blank stares. They asked us to repeat the question, seemingly surprised that we had asked them to take responsibility for their reactions. Surely, we had meant to ask them what everyone else was doing wrong in the conversation, right?
Leaders and teammates often tell us that their team is “dysfunctional” (their word, not ours) and ask us to help identify and fix the issue. When we dig deeper and ask them to describe what they are observing in detail, we typically hear that certain team members are problematic and need to change their behavior. We also hear vague statements about “them” (everyone else) not knowing how to operate effectively. As experienced team development practitioners, we know that these are not accurate or helpful assessments of the situation.
Teams are complex systems of individuals with different preferences, skills, experiences, perspectives, and habits. The odds of improving that complex system in a meaningful and sustainable way are higher if every team member — including the leader — learns to master these three foundational capabilities: internal self-awareness, external self-awareness, and personal accountability.
I once asked an executive I was coaching how he was feeling about a challenging situation. He replied, “You mean my emotions? I’m an engineer and I don’t think about emotions.” He then changed the subject.
This executive lacked internal self-awareness.
Internal self-awareness involves understanding your feelings, beliefs, and values — your inner narrative. When we don’t understand ourselves, we are more likely to succumb to the fundamental attribution error of believing that the behaviors of others are the result of negative intent or character (“he was late because he does not care”) and believing that our own behaviors are caused by circumstance (“I was late because of traffic”). Teammates with low internal self-awareness typically see their beliefs and values as “the truth,” as opposed to what is true for them based on their feelings and past experiences. They can fail to recognize that others may have equally valid perspectives.
Let’s look at another example: Manuel, a low internal self-awareness leader, and his colleague, Tara. In a product planning meeting, Tara, a big picture thinker, says, “We need to think of this plan in the context of our broader strategy.” Manuel, an execution-focused leader, has an unconscious reaction of anger and frustration. He would rather focus on the detailed plan and the execution. But rather than recognizing his different thinking style as the cause of his discomfort and the root of his belief that strategy is unimportant, he concludes privately that Tara doesn’t understand the situation, is annoying, and is not the right person for this project. He later tells another colleague she should be taken off the team.
This is a loss for everyone. Tara is misunderstood, devalued, and possibly dismissed. Manuel doesn’t broaden his perspective or learn how to operate with people who think differently than he does.
The good news is that internal self-awareness can be learned. To start, you — as a leader of the team or a teammate — can pause, reflect, and consider your responses to these questions when you find yourself in challenging or emotionally-charged scenarios.
– What emotions am I experiencing?
– What am I assuming about another person or the situation?
– What are the facts vs. my interpretations?
– What are my core values, and how might they be impacting my reactions?
If you take the time to consider your responses and resist the impulse to rush to an answer, you can learn a great deal about yourself. As William Deresiewicz, author of Solitude and Leadership, said in an address at West Point, “[The] first thought is never [the] best thought.”
Read the full article on Harvard Business Review
Jennifer Porter is the Managing Partner of The Boda Group, a leadership and team development firm. She is a graduate of Bates College and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, an experienced operations executive, and an executive and team coach.