“What Is the Right Way to . . . ?”

A coaching client asked me one of those “right way” questions the other day. (I get them often.) In this case, he wanted to know the right way to lead his team. He worried that he would do it “wrong” and mess things up. Experienced coaches know that there are many right ways to lead a team. There are many right ways to do most of the complex tasks that are given to high performers. They don’t give jobs with simple answers to senior people.  

Of course, as we talked, my client recognized that there were many good ways he could approach his leadership task. Factors we considered in deciding which ways might work best included his personality, the personalities of his direct reports, the mission of his team, the culture of his organization, and the interests of the various stakeholders, among others. He developed a well-reasoned approach, which included the option of changing that approach as the team grew and evolved.

But what if he hadn’t had a coach to help him think through his situation? He might have stayed stuck in his search for the one “right way.” His anxiety over “getting it wrong” would likely have gone up. High anxiety constricts intellectual focus. Thus, he would have been in danger of looking at only a small number of the critical variables he needed to consider. 

Coaches get these kinds of questions all the time. How come? What leads really smart, sophisticated people to think in such immature (as in six-year-old thinking!) and intellectually limiting terms? Blame it on our first-grade teachers. 

Take yourself back to your first grade. The problems that you were given as a first grader had one right answer. Two and two make four.  That’s just all there is to it. When you raised your hand and answered “Four!” what happened? Your teacher smiled at you and said, “Right!” It felt great! The same thing happened to your clients when they were in first grade. Who wouldn’t want to repeat that experience?! On the other hand, when you got something wrong, after waving your hand insistently so that your teacher would call on you, the potential for shame and fear of that happening again grew.

What was the long term impact? Most of us developed a mental model, i.e., a way of thinking, that there is one right answer to problems, and that wrong answers are punished, not rewarded. We were young and impressionable, ripe for learning mental models. Today, intellectually, you know better. You likely call on more complex mental models most of the time, as do our clients. 

But what happens when the pressure is high, and anxiety goes up? We tend to revert back to early stages of our development, often first grade thinking. The brain facilitates that process. Anxiety uses glucose at a high level. To conserve fuel for all of the myriad tasks that the brain has to manage (thinking, managing biological processes like breathing, and scouring the environment for unexpected threats), it seeks simplicity. There is nothing simpler than a problem with one right answer. 

When a leader is with his or her coach at a time like this, the coach can do what I did, help that leader think with complexity. But we are not always around. Many leaders don’t have a coach. What can they do then?

Emotional Self-Awareness is a lifeline here. While that initial jolt of anxiety is likely to be intellectually limiting, the leader doesn’t have to stay in that space. If he or she recognizes anxiety for what it is, that is, notices the emotion of anxiety, it can be used as a signal to avoid falling prey to first grade thinking. 

Emotional intelligence (EQ) is the intelligent use of emotion. One manifestation of EQ is recognizing our emotions (Emotional Self-Awareness – one of the sixteen learnable skills) and making a judgement as to whether a particular emotion is helping or hindering. If we see that our current emotion is getting in our way, we can ask ourselves, “What emotion would serve me better?” 

Leaders who are facing a complex leadership challenge might want to take steps to lower their anxiety, not to zero, but to a moderate level. (Moderate anxiety actually facilitates high performance.) Maybe that leader could think something like: “This is a tough challenge. But I’ve faced several difficult leadership challenges successfully, which tells me I can probably handle this one. Now let’s see  . . . .”

There are proven methods for building Emotional Self Awareness. For example, the EQ Leader Program2.0 has a menu of exercises which leaders across the world have used to do so.

By the way, let’s not be too hard on first grade teachers. They are doing their job (and aren’t paid nearly enough to do it). That early model served us well at the time. But, the first grade is just one step in a life time learning process. If we are growing, we will develop new models at each stage of development, continuing to reassess those models as we move forward.  I’m reminded of Einstein’s quote: “The problems we face today arise from the solutions to problems we faced yesterday.” 

Discussion Question for Coaches: Please share a time when you helped a client move from right/wrong thinking to creative or critical thinking to solve a complex problem. 

Discussion Question for CLOs: What do you look for in development programs to build creative or complex thinking? 

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