Sources of Upset Heightened by the Holiday Season

December 15, 2009

I was somewhat disbelieving when my friend and fellow organizational consultant, Ellie Byers, told me there are really only three sources of negative emotions, or upsets:

  1. Withheld communications
  2. Unfulfilled expectations
  3. Thwarted intentions

However, after thinking about this for a while, I came to agree with her.  Ellie was unsure of the source of this wisdom, so I would be glad to give attribution if someone knows the creator.

Most of us are familiar with the tensions and upsets that can accompany family gatherings at holiday time.  I will use such family occasions to explore each of these sources in separate writings, beginning with the first on the list.  I will also relate this information to the organizations we work in.

Withheld communications can occur in any form of communication, be it spoken, written, or implied with body language.  It does not necessarily mean that no communication has occurred.  Rather, it means that the communication that has occurred is not clear, direct, or complete.

  • Communication that is not clear occurs when we do not take into account how the person we are communicating with will hear what we have to say.  Correcting this involves learning to speak to the listening of our audience.  Not everyone thinks as we do, or knows what we know, so what we say is not always understood as we intend.  Not communicating clearly can lead to conflict through misunderstanding.
  • Communication that is not direct occurs when we fear there will be a consequence for speaking our truth. Direct communication may have brought criticism or anger upon us in the past, and therefore we learn to temper our honesty to prevent that from happening again.  Indirect communications often carry the label of being “passive-aggressive”, meaning the indirectness, which is a passive behavior, leaves the listener feeling badly, which is an aggressive outcome.  Negativity or disapproval conveyed through body language is often a type of passive-aggressive, indirect communication.  Not communicating in a direct fashion can lead to conflict and resentment.

  • Communication that is not complete combines both unclear and indirect communications.  The speaker makes assumptions that the listener will “fill in the blanks” either because they assume the listener thinks as they do or because the avoidance of all details protects the speaker from the judgment or anger of the listener.  In other situations, incomplete communications are designed to set up the listener for failure.  This style of communication can be confusing at best, and dangerous at worst.

Withheld communication is typically self-protecting, even when it seems to be just a case of laziness.  However, attempting to avoid conflict by withholding communication usually backfires and creates an even greater conflict.  Generally, the tendency to communicate this way has roots in our family of origin.  A punitive work place culture can also foster withheld communications as people strive to protect their position and ego within a team or organization.

A suggestion for good listening, particularly when there is the potential for upset: repeat in your own words, and without emotional weight, what the person has just said to you, then verify you have heard them correctly.  This will accomplish two things: The person will feel validated by the fact that you are sincerely listening to them, and you will be certain you heard them correctly.  You can reverse the process by politely requesting someone repeat back to you what he or she just heard you say.

As we enter the holiday season, return to our family of origin as an adult, and possibly add extended family to the mix, experiment with being direct and honest in all interactions.  Honesty does not equal rudeness, it means taking into account the listener, and being absolutely clear about the result you wish to create through your conversations.  When extended family comes together, there is usually a grace period when everyone is on his or her best behavior.  Eventually a button is pushed, a trigger is tripped, and the family falls back in to the communication patterns of yore.  Directness, tempered with a caring tone, can defuse this dynamic.

Speaking one’s truth is freeing and far less complicated, as one never needs to remember the nuance of previous interactions.  People often have a greater capacity for the truth than we give them credit for.  Training them that you are a clear communicator will elevate the respect you receive in the family, and in the work place.

Stay tuned for my next blog on the second source of upset: unfulfilled expectation.

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Leader, Know Thy Self

November 23, 2009

As an executive coach, I enjoy reading what others have to say about leadership: leadership styles, what it take so to be a leader, the (insert #) most important leadership traits, etc.  If you were to try and take all the various musing on what a great leader should be as truth, it seems to me that the only thing you would come away with is a strong sense of inadequacy. Those that manage just a few people all the way up to CEOs of large enterprises ask themselves such questions as, “Did I show enough empathy in my conversation with Mary this morning?”  “Am I “visionary” enough?”  “Are they following me because they respect me, or because they fear me?”

I advise my clients to read all they can about leadership, but to not get caught up in emulation at any cost.  I believe that the single most critical thing about being a leader is to know thy self.  We are all different, and we all have our leadership strengths and our challenges.  We are different at our core, at the level of our genetic heritage, the way our brains are wired, our appearance, our nature.  We are also different in our experiences, our backgrounds, our family systems, our education, our nurture.

I could no sooner be a leader in the style of Winston Churchill than I could be an Olympic gold medalist.  However, if I posses self-awareness, I can be aware when a leadership situation plays to my strength, or if the situation will be a challenge for me.  If the circumstance requires a style that is powerful for me, I can take action with confidence.  If the style required will be a challenge to me, I have two choices.

The first is to focus on what is required in the situation to see if I can shift to the mode required.  The answers to two questions will tell me if I can make this shift: do I have the knowledge of what is needed, and do I have the energy and capacity to stretch to that less than familiar role?

If the answer to either of these two questions is “No”, then my remaining choice is to decide who does have the power to do what is necessary under the circumstances.  This can be a hard thing for a leader to do: recognize that someone else may need to take the lead on a particular initiative or crisis.  However, the best leaders are those that mentor others to be leaders themselves without requiring the acolyte to be a replica of the boss.

5-D Leadership is one of the best books on this subject.  Written by Scott Campbell and Ellen Samiec, the examples of leadership success and failure as a result of self-awareness, or the lack thereof, are fascinating.

One of my favorite aphorisms is, “You cannot be someone you are not until you know who you are.”  Truer words, in my opinion, were never spoken.  In future writings, I will explore a method to gain self-awareness.

Corporate Governance: A Word of Caution About “Affiliated” Directors

November 12, 2009

There has been a dramatic increase in the attention given to corporate governance issues subsequent to the spectacular failures of board oversight at such companies as Enron and Global Crossing.  The most noteworthy response to these acts of corporate fraud was the passing of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act in 2002.  While the bill only applies to publicly traded companies, privately held businesses quickly realized that this was the new de facto standard for them.

Specifically, the term independence has taken on increased significance.  Directors who are independent of the day-to-day operation of a firm are deemed better able to represent the interests of shareholders than “inside” directors.

Unfortunately, as the need for qualified independent directors has risen, the risk of personal liability for directors has grown, causing many qualified individuals to think twice before accepting board positions.  Additionally, otherwise qualified, independent, directors must undertake considerable education to fully understand the scope of their oversight and policy making responsibilities in an industry that they may be unfamiliar with.

When CEOs and current board members seek the expertise needed for their boards, they quickly realize that they have such experts right under their noses in the form of the firm’s attorney, CPA, financial advisor, etc. What an elegant solution to their need for informed, non-employee, directors!  Or is it?

Board members who are also professional advisors fall into a category know as affiliated directors.  They may not receive a W-2, like an employee, but they do receive a 1099.  Many board deliberations have direct or indirect impact on the use of professional advisors, thus how independent can these advisors be as board members?

Affiliation takes other forms.  Directors need to be independent of themselves, not just the company.  Golf buddies and old friends on a board are loath to break the “code of congeniality,” the killer of challenging discourse.  Directors with close ties to a specific group of shareholders are likely to be conflicted.  Directors cannot “represent” a particular constituency, they must act on behalf of all shareholders.

CEOs and current board members must have the courage to look for director candidates who have proven talents, principal among which should be the ability to both collaborate and disagree within the decision making process.  Add a lawyer or CPA to your board?  Sure, but not your lawyer or CPA.

As you consider director candidates who would be deemed affiliated, my advice is, “Don’t do that!”  Directors should provide a competitive advantage to the organization.  Make that goal a reality by creating a board of truly independent thinkers.  I leave you with a quote by William Bowen, author of The Board Book: “We don’t learn much when we are surrounded by the likes of ourselves.”