We all have bad days. I had a doozy not long ago. I found myself standing in front of a room full of people, enduring some very angry and very personal criticism. It was only a few of the people in that meeting, but that did not make it any easier. It was necessary for me to stand alone, remain calm, listen carefully, offer no defense, and attempt to interject a clarifying question when I was able. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do.
The aspect that was most challenging was that the actions of which I was being accused were the very things I had worked for a year to prevent. I had worked hard to eliminate divisiveness and to raise the quality of conversation within the community by encouraging respect for those with whom we disagree. To be accused of being divisive, disrespectful, and of having “dissed everyone” was devastating. Most of the others who were present during the tirades remained, thankfully, silent. I learned later that many were too stunned to react. Whatever the reason, allowing one person to take the brunt of the attack diffused the anger much more quickly than an open brawl would have allowed.
I went through several stages of emotion in the days following. Initially, I was in shock– “gob struck” as a colleague of mine would say. Then followed several days of anger. This surprised me. What happened to the detached composure that served me so well during the meeting? Upon reflection, of course, anger was perfectly natural. The attacks had been personal and had gone to the core of my integrity. At last, anger gave way to sober self-reflection.
Many of my friends advised me not to dwell on the incident. “It was a small faction who spoke out,” my supporters reminded me, “and they certainly did not represent the preponderance of opinion.” While this is true, I could not let it rest there. There were certainly many things that I had gotten right, but clearly I had also gotten something terribly wrong. This was evidenced by the nature of the anger I observed in those individuals . Yes it was personal and in many ways inappropriate. But the key is that it was genuine. What did I get so wrong?
That question, “What did I get wrong?” is a fundamental leadership question. It demands continual improvement in our interpersonal relationships. Such improvement is critical because, as I have written in the past, each phase of our lives prepares us for the next (e.g., Learning from the Big Push). Each thing we learn becomes another tool to be used to improve the world (e.g., Blanket Order). Everything is in some way or another connected (e.g., Fugue). And at the end of the day, we always tend to learn more from our failures than our successes (e.g., My Favorite Failures). Bottom line, there are always more dots to be connected that will make us more perceptive and therefore more effective leaders.
In addition to being a key leadership question, “What did I get wrong?” is also an advanced class question. It is advanced class because it is a question one can rarely answer alone. At the same time, it is also rarely a question another person can answer for us. It requires a combination of personal root cause analysis combined with active listening (or, in this case, reading). It requires a high level of both self-awareness and humility. The latter, in particular, is not a quality that I have in abundance.
In my case, I did not have much opportunity to ask clarifying questions such as “Can you give me an example of that?” or “How could I have better included you in this process?” Even after the fact, those opportunities were not readily available. Nevertheless, I was able to sit down and make a list of events – some of them seemingly trivial in a reasonable, rational world – in which I might have caused offense without being consciously aware of it. A pattern was beginning to emerge but I was as yet unable to bring the pattern into focus, even as a partial picture.
The turning point for me came some weeks later as I was enjoying my morning cup o’ joe while reading that day’s helping of sagacity from my leadership guru Dan Rockwell’s blog. I knew that I was about to strike gold as soon as I began reading the article. As I continued, the picture emerged quickly until…bam! There it was in black and white. What did I get wrong? I had spent most of a year spanking the gorilla.
Before explaining what that means, let me provide some background into the situation that precipitated the attack. Some nine months earlier, I had found myself in a leadership role in a small public institution. This organization has been in existence for only about fifteen years and many of its early staff members remain heavily involved. It is a close-knit community united behind a deep, common philosophy. It is a valid philosophy, but its practice has failed to align with changing government regulations. It has also caused a deep rift with the parent organization.
My team came in with three specific charges. We needed to heal the communication disconnect with the parent organization, bring a professional level of structure to the institution, and increase program funding. Our team was ideal from the standpoint of skills; we brought broad business and life experience coupled with the will to roll up our sleeves and get to work. By and large, we were successful in achieving these three goals. But success required change. Change was what most of our stakeholders desired. Not everyone shared that desire.
In this case, some individuals who had been with the institution the longest perceived change as criticism. For instance, the mere observation that a decline in attendance by one stakeholder group at a particular meeting – even though no speculation was given as to cause – was perceived as a reproof of that group. On the one hand, someone might say, “Well, that’s not reasonable.” My reply would be, “Perhaps it isn’t reasonable, but it is real.” This was a classic case of a failure to practice good organizational change management. Enter the gorilla.
Imagine my thrill as I read Dan’s post “Don’t Spank the Gorilla” and watched my own “pachinko balls” finally drop into place. He brought the full picture into focus for me near the end of the piece. “Don’t spank the gorilla. Give him what he wants. Appeal to his inner motivations. Make him feel safe.”
Make him feel safe. With those words, I saw my error. I had not recognized that even the slightest change might be threatening to someone who had pursued a labor of love in relative isolation for so many years. As a team, we did not seek a way to validate the effort and achievement that had come before us, much less manage acceptance of the need for change. Time was against us, but that is no excuse.
Dan wrote another paragraph in his piece that is one of my game-sharpening whetstones. “Start with others. Leaders who begin with themselves come off as arrogant and pressuring. That’s because they are. But leaders who start with others come off as humble and inviting.” It wasn’t that I had avoided this advice. It was that I failed to recognize that not everyone has needs and perceptions that can be addressed in the same tempo. Some people will become secure in a relationship and ready to accept change reasonably easily. For a variety of reasons, others may require more personal contact across a longer span of time before they might, if ever, be ready. It may have been tacit arrogance, but it was arrogance nevertheless. It is a difficult trait to admit, but it explains why the anger was so personal.
Connect the Dots
While there is much wisdom in this world, I do not believe that anyone has a monopoly on that commodity. I certainly do not. Dan Rockwell would be the first to admit that he does not either. But there is something in the way Dan looks at people and relationships (and writes about them) that helps me to connect my own dots. At the same time, I am convinced that the man has my office under surveillance. The morning after I had completed the first draft of this post, Dan published “10 Statements that Eliminate Misconceptions.” This short piece, too, is worth your time to read. One paragraph in particular drives my point home. “You interpret your heart. Others interpret your behavior.”
As with most bad days, something good came from it in the end. I sharpened my game by honing it on a combination of new whetstones. Restated, “What did I get wrong?” became not just a crucial question, but one that is best asked and answered in the context of honest self-reflection in conjunction with an awareness of how others perceive our actions. Lest I repeat this error, I have hung the photograph of a gorilla across from my desk. I trust that she will be a sufficient reminder.
What strategies do you use to sharpen your game? How do you help your organization manage change?