Imagine a senior-level manager with extensive leadership experience who openly discusses their weaknesses. I know, it might sound too good to be true but stay with me.
They might say at a team meeting,
“I think it’s important for us to continually work on our professional development. It is ok to be open about our weaknesses and work on them. For example, I know that listening can be one of my challenges. I have been told that for years. Feel free to nod. I am aware. I want everyone to know it is ok for us to admit openly where we need to improve.”
I have witnessed a leader say this. Let’s call him Andre. His intent was to make it ok to discuss where the team needed to improve. A cornerstone of psychological safety, Andre was trying to make it safe to show vulnerability and talk about areas to improve upon. When I first heard him say this, I was impressed at the candor.
The problem was, Andre was indeed notorious for not listening, but he rarely appeared to do anything about it. His team felt he openly talked about his listening challenges only to provide an excuse for not listening.
I got to know Andre well during that time and learned that he wasn’t flip or dismissive of the impact his weaknesses had on the team. He just lacked the knowledge and ability to not only change the way he listened, but also demonstrate his intention to the team.
Andre isn’t alone. One of the toughest aspects of developing and growing is doing something different. We naturally gravitate to what is easy and comfortable, and change disrupts that comfort.
If you too struggle to make even subtle changes to your leadership style, know that you’re not alone. Everyone does. It is not an indicator of your work ethic or discipline.
It’s likely you know of some changes that would fuel your development and progress and thus make a bigger impact on your work and your team. Here are a few tips to get started.
Uncover the Specifics
Leaders like Andre, who struggle with listening or making their teams feel heard, often engage in small and specific behaviors that are easily tweaked for improvement.
In Andre’s case, he needed to put down his phone and maintain eye contact during his conversations. To level up his listening, he would have benefitted from repeating back what he heard to confirm his understanding. This would help ensure he and the listener were on the same page. It’s also a subtle way to demonstrate to the other person that he heard them.
These small changes can often lead to big improvements in both the work and the relationship. Understanding the specific behaviors to change is the first step toward taking action.
Keep it Narrow
While “go big or go home” is an admirable approach to changing behavior, it’s often not the best. Making big broad changes, that require lots of shifts in behavior, leaves many feeling overwhelmed. After you have uncovered the specific behaviors to change, practice just one or two.
Keep the scope of the changes small to increase the likelihood for success. When one change sticks, add another, and so on. Incremental change will yield better results over time versus trying to tackle them all at once.
Partner with a Friend or Colleague
Going at change on your own is one of the easiest ways to set yourself up for failure. Pulling in a friend or colleague and describing to them what you want to change and how will maximize the likelihood that you will start practicing the new behaviors.
For example, Lela wanted to speak up more often in meetings. She was tired of remaining silent and being viewed as someone without an opinion. So, she shared this with a close colleague who not only encouraged her, but also put her on the spot (with Lela’s permission). Her colleague would ask Lela’s opinion in the meeting, nearly forcing her to speak up. While initially uncomfortable, Lela said this approach helped build her confidence so that she was more likely to speak up in meeting when her friend was not in attendance.
One of the biggest obstacles to behavior change is the busyness of our lives and the reality of forgetting. We may practice new behaviors for a short time, but then we have a couple bad days, and we go back to our old ways. Its very easy to forget our good intentions, especially when we’re strained or overworked.
Build reminders into your routine. Maybe it’s a sticky note on the bathroom mirror or a cue in next month’s schedule. Anything to prompt you to practice. Behavior change requires repetition, and a lot of it.
Keep At It but Try New Approaches
Learning new behaviors and improving skills very rarely is a “one and done” endeavor. There will be obstacles, like fatigue and stress, that get in the way of progress. Expect setbacks. The leaders who advance their performance in a consistent way are those who try new ways of practicing that keep their energy and focus fresh. The repetition required for change can get boring which then leads to abandoning the effort. Mix it up, search for new ideas online, or ask for advice from friends and colleagues. The point is to keep at it and the best way to do that is to keep the strategies novel.
Most leaders have a pretty good sense of self, that includes both strengths and weaknesses. What sets high performers apart from the rest are those who act on that self-awareness. Having a roadmap, like following these tips, will help any leader do something with their self-awareness.
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Until next time!
Amy Drader is a management consultant and credentialed coach with over 20 years’ experience in HR and operations. She knows first-hand the joys and challenges of leading people and is dedicated to helping managers and teams advance their performance. She is the owner of Growth Partners Consulting, a boutique leadership and team development consulting firm that provides customized training and coaching.
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