In my coaching practice one of the concepts I often work with clients on is how to manage what I call their “Board of Directors”. Others refer to them as the “old tapes” that play in their heads, perhaps confronted by a problem or questioned on their work product. I’ve learned to refer to them as “the voices in one’s head”!
Not the type of inside voices that we might associate with mental illness, but that internal chatter that happens for most, if not all, of us that are our constant internal critics. Does anybody recognize any of these internal conversations?
“What are you doing applying for that job, you know that you’re not qualified!”
“People are always interrupting you because you don’t really matter to them!”
“No wonder that didn’t work, your effort usually isn’t good enough!”
“Don’t stick your neck out, nothing good will come of it!”
“Keep quiet in this meeting, then no one will know you don’t know what to do next!”
For myself, I now recognize these voices as lifelong companions although doing so was a fairly rigorous exercise in self-awareness to come to know them well. What was interesting about truly understanding these voices was that I could then identify the behavior I had adapted into my way of being that would attempt to appease the voices. Where a voice might say I’M NOT ENOUGH!, a behavior would appear almost as a mirror image to reflect back I AM NOT “NOT ENOUGH”!. But as with most mirror images, it isn’t always easy to interpret the original when you first see the reflection.
What do I mean by this? One of the members of my internal board likes to try to tell me that I’m not good enough. The mirror behavior for me has been to develop a work ethic and a drive to be so productive as to out work everyone around me. A colleague of mine has a board member that likes to tell her she’s not smart enough. Her counteracting behavior in meetings is to remain silent as much as possible so as not to have the opportunity to say the wrong thing.
These mirror behaviors often become strengths that we rely on. For me, I was a “go to” person to get things done and I built my career on that. For my colleague, she developed amazing listening skills and used meetings to gather information and later engage people one-on-one in collaborative dialogue.
As we progress through our careers, we can often find that our greatest strengths also start to appear as our greatest weaknesses as well. For me, as I rose to the level of an executive within an organization I realized that not only would I work myself to death trying to get everything assigned to my group done, but I was being viewed as a leader that didn’t trust his team because I needed to be involved in everything to know it was “good enough”.
That realization was enough for me to engage a coach to help me find a better way. The first step in that journey was the hardest, and that was to develop a much higher level of self-awareness of when and how my Board of Directors was affecting my behavior. Knowing the voice wasn’t enough … I needed to find the triggers and then how I reacted to the situation.
When I could identify the voice acting upon me I worked to intercept the reaction before it got out into my environment. With the situation now under my control I could evaluate what was true for me in what the voice was telling me. I would literally ask myself “Is it true that I’m not good enough?”
When thinking about this question rationally, I knew it almost always wasn’t true and then can ask “then what’s really happening here”? For example, if someone asked me a question like “Why didn’t you do that differently?” A reaction might be “what are you talking about – I did it correctly!” But when I do that I lose the opportunity to find out what’s behind the question. If I can quiet the board for a few minutes I can explore what is going on. Perhaps asking a question like: “What are you seeing here?” might open my eyes to new possibilities. A question like: “Can you tell me more about your question?” might uncover that my actions unwittingly caused distress for this person and I can make it right.
What I do know is that a reactive approach usually shuts down further meaningful dialogue, and thus my work with a coach to intercept reactions has really allowed me to explore new and deeper relationships with people.
I think this idea of managing our reactions is a critical leadership skill. When leading we want the relationship to be about supporting our team member and helping them grow. That’s hard to do when the Leader’s board of directors is grabbing on to every interaction and making it all about the leader. Good leaders learn to regulate themselves in the manner described above, suppressing judgmental reactions and substituting thoughtful responses designed to facilitate learning for both parties.
How have you seen leaders work in this space? Do you have stories about where leaders reacted and created a problem? Have you seen leaders stand calmly in a crisis and use great questioning skills to find their way out of a problem?